Classical CD Reviews

“Conrad Tao: Voyages” — MONK: Railroad; RACHMANINOV: 5 Preludes; TAO: Vestiges; Iridescence; RAVEL: Gaspard de la Nuit – Conrad Tao, p. – EMI Classics

A frothy amalgam of jazz forms, classical, and contemporary musical styles.

Published on June 3, 2013

“Conrad Tao: Voyages” — MONK: Railroad; RACHMANINOV: 5 Preludes; TAO: Vestiges; Iridescence for Piano and iPad; RAVEL: Gaspard de la Nuit – Conrad Tao, p. – EMI Classics 9 34476 2, 64:11 ****:

Chinese-American pianist Conrad Tao (b. 1994) considers himself a composer-pianist, so the company he keeps on this disc reflects his select companionship. Images shifting or changing shape provides the rubric for this disc, so the forms assume various guises, real and surreal. The blend of jazz forms, classical, and contemporary musical styles adds to the frothy amalgam Tao wishes to preserve.

Tao opens with the minimalist Railroad (Travel Song) by Meredith Monk (b. 1942). Intentionally repetitious and percussive, the 1981 piece also has a sultry allure, perhaps more indebted to Tao’s performance than to its innate properties.  Immediately juxtaposed against Monk’s percussion ensues Rachmaninov’s sensuous lullaby of sound, his G Major Prelude, Op. 32, No. 5, a perennial favorite of such luminaries as Lympany and Moiseiwitsch. The upper register of Tao’s Steinway D simply shimmers in luxury, courtesy of engineer Leslie Ann Jones (rec. 10-14 August 2012).  More luminescence comes in the form of Rachmaninov’s G-sharp Minor Prelude, Op. 32, No. 12, although the affect proves more nervously bravura. The massive B Minor Prelude, Op. 32, No. 10 Rachmaninov himself called “The Return.” The music conveys a solemn sense of occasion, although Tao imparts a wistful nonchalance to its antiphonal scale patterns. But soon the tolling bells dominate, as though Rachmaninov were mimicking Debussy’s Sunken Cathedral, at least until Rachmaninov indulges in his own idiosyncratic cascades. Tao includes two preludes from the Op. 23 set: the C Minor, Op. 23, No. 7 with its motor power in etude form; and the B-flat Major, Op. 23, No. 2, certainly turbulent with heroic gestures that cross Chopin’s flair with Rachmaninov’s large-spanned Slavic effusions.

If the Rachmaninov selections fail to prove virtuosic enough for this sampling of colors and shape-shifters, Tao renders the 1908 suite Gaspard de la Nuit by Maurice Ravel. Tao seems to recall that the designation “Gaspard” refers to the keeper of the royal treasury; here, under the aegis of the poems of Aloysius Bertrand, the ‘treasures’ unleashed – as though by Pandora herself – include depictions of a seductive mermaid, a devil, and a hanged corpse. Though not a virtuoso pianist, Ravel intended to create in the Scarbo movement a demonic picture whose technique would emulate that demanded by Balakirev’s Islamey.  Tao negotiates Ondine with surpassing facility, the lines pellucid and lulling at once, a real water-piece of richly embroidered fabric, ravishingly executed. Even as we “possess” the diabolic mermaid, she slips through our minds as well as our fingers.

The tolling B-flat in Le Gibet marks both the slow twist of the hangman’s knot and the tolling bell, as a corpse glows by the light of the setting sun. The corpse appears to change hues in the course of the light cast upon it from without, and its own, ongoing discolorations from within. Ghastly and compelling at once, the music captures Conrad’s “fascination of the abomination” that lies at the heart of darkness. Repeated notes for both hands and right hand, double note scales in major seconds present only a portion of the “mischief” that the imp Scarbo has in store. Tao’s detached articulation heightens the caustic irony of the piece, its jarring bass chords and cross rhythms keeping us alert and on guard against a whirlwind force realized in Fuseli’s The Nightmare. The late curlicues and eddies the piece invokes has a “cyclical” effect, drawing us down into the abysses Ondine proffered. The choppy “teeth” of the late pages make a fitting musical counterpart to Poe’s A Descent into the Maelstrom. 

Tao the composer presents tow major offerings: his Iridescence (2012) for Piano and Ipad owes much of its “electronic” or “submerged” character to the influence of both Brian Eno and Olivier Messaien, with the music’s “chime” or gamelan effects likely attributable to Debussy. The six-minute piece will remind auditors of a visual memory of a pebble having been dropped into a pool of oils or water colors. Certainly, the work is appealing – though repetitive – without having assaulted us with cacophony. Earlier in the ambient mix, we find Tao’s four Vestiges for piano (2011-12), possibly a reference to Prokofiev’s “Fugitive Visions,” at least in terms of desired effect. Each bears an illustrative title: upon waking alongside green glass bottles; upon ripping perforated pages; upon being; upon viewing two porcelain figures. The first is all glitter; the second, jazzy, obsessive, percussive, and rambunctious; the longest, upon being, hangs in harmonically dubious spaces, akin to Scriabin, Medtner, Satie, and Bill Evans. The last points to Debussy’s Estampes as its model: an unapologetic toccata, the piece surges forward in waves and repeated syncopes. If Mr. Tao wished to play the young Turk and challenge keyboard virtuosos with a piece that would rival Prokofiev, Khachaturian, and Shchedrin for vitality and digital audacity, he has succeeded impressively.

—Gary Lemco




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