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CD Review

American Grace

Piano Music

  • Steven Mackey:
  • Stumble to Grace 1
  • Sneaky March
  • John Adams:
  • Hallelujah Junction 2
  • China Gates
Orli Shaham, piano
2 Jon Kimura Parker, piano
1 Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra/David Robertson
Canary Classics CC11 50min
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon JapanOrder Now from ArkivMusic.comFind it at CD Universe Find it at JPC

Beautifully packaged and recorded, this important release highlights modern American piano music at its very finest. Canary Classics is the label of violinist Gil Shaham, but more recently has become an all-family affair, with sister Orli and her husband David Robertson coming on board as well. They need no disclaimer, though; Robertson is a charismatic and intelligent presence on the podium, and Orli Shaham is an entirely engaging pianist. On evidence here, they are both important champions of contemporary music as well.

Adams' Hallelujah Junction for two pianos is so invigoratingly played by Shaham and Jon Kimura Parker that you might love it even if – like me – this composer is not usually your cup of tea. In any event, the work is a major statement by a major composer, a two-piano romp that pleases as much for its enthusiasm as for its relentlessly forward drive. Shaham and Parker equally share credit for a reading that is clear and always purposeful. At just over 16 minutes, the work seems like a nearly effortless arch of sound despite the audible technical challenges at play. You might like this a lot more than you think.

The two pieces by Mackey receive their recording debuts here. Stumble to Grace is a piano concerto that really makes demands on the soloist through unusual rhythmic changes and dynamic shifts. There really isn't a better orchestra for this than the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which provides a dramatic and committed accompaniment. Shaham really digs into what must be a really daunting solo line, and Robertson heightens the drama by making sure that each section of the work has the requisite contrast and impact. I expect the work will be taken up by more pianists; it is an excellent piece overall and deserves another champion or two. Like the Adams – and despite being broken up into five "stages" – the 25-minute concerto seems to be one continuous musical arch. I'm always a little wary of new music, especially on disc, but this is tremendous.

The two shorter works – Adams' China Gates and Mackey's Sneaky March – fill out the disc nicely and allow Orli Shaham to display her considerable solo skills. The Sneaky March is short – less than two minutes, in fact – but a nice little march it remains. It also has some really nice inner voices, and there's a lot of good writing in a very short period of time. Kudos to Shaham for really paying attention to details and letting every part ring out with confidence. China Gates is a stark contrast to Mackey's jaunty little march. Flowing and rich with melody, this is pure Adams. But again, the pianist takes such care to give every note meaning that the repetitive nature of the music is not an issue. There's great nuance to the playing, and a sense of grace and poetry that repeated listening merely reinforces. A great disc, and another valuable project from Canary Classics.

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman