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Classical 101

Pianist James Rhodes' Brilliant Debut Recording

FOUR AUDIO PIECES   When I saw the title of James Rhodes' debut recording, Razor Blades, Little Pills, Big Pianos, I was immediately reminded of Dorothy Parker's great poem "Résumé: Razors pain you; Rivers are damp; Acids stain you; And drugs cause cramp. Guns aren't lawful; Nooses give; Gas smells awful; Might as well live. Parker was all about darkness and light, but mostly darkness.  Her depression and suicide attempts ran like light leitmotivs through a life built on her brilliantly incisive gift for the word, which, likewise, is almost never without a plentiful helping of acerbic wit that we might all too easily call dark humor. It's certainly dark, in its own way it makes us laugh, but is it really humor? So with Dorothy Parker looking over my shoulder, I listened to James Rhodes' recording.  Well, actually, first I looked at Rhodes' recording, at the various candids of a white-shirted Rhodes popping out here and there from a black, dark, dark background in an array of unusual poses that in their eccentricity are strangely reminiscent of the brilliantly eccentric pianist Glenn Gould. In one image, Rhodes stands with his hands behind his head, his black, black sunglasses obscuring eyes clearly looking past the camera. In another image he squats, looking perplexedly into the camera, palms together as though in prayer. And in the most Gould-ian of the images, his shoulders round awkwardly over the (black-and-white) piano keyboard while dark, dark-rimmed glasses rest on his nose. Maybe packaging really works. It's a photo montage that communicates hints of Rhodes' life story, a story of which Rhodes gives us only the outline: depression, then music, then stability and the beginning of what might be a good career. In other words, it's a story of light emerging from darkness like all those white shirts emerging from a black, dark, dark void. So then, with Dorothy Parker and Glenn Gould looking over my shoulder, I put the CD in the CD player. The first track is the Allemande from Bach's French Suite No 5, BWV 816, and I found myself expecting the hear Bach that sounded like Glenn Gould's famously eccentric interpretations. That expectation was unfair, not to mention silly, of course. No one but Gould will ever sound like Gould, and certainly every artist wants his or her voice to be acknowledged as unique. But even though the provocative title and all the post-modern packaging of Rhodes' Razor Blades drew me in, I swear there's still something special about Rhodes' playing. It's at once technically sure and, unlike many of Gould's recordings, artistically squarely in the mainstream. But technically proficient and artistically mature pianists are a dime a dozen these days. So what is it about Rhodes' playing that, like the packaging around it on this recording, has gotten under my skin? I'm not sure I can say, actually. Rhodes' Bach is crisp, clean and elegant. There's nothing affected, and each phrase has a nice shape. It doesn't possess the crystal clear individuation of contrapuntal lines that Gould's Bach had. But I, for one, officially do not care, especially when in the tiny slice of time that exists between movements of a work Rhodes can go from the elegant exuberance that bubbles up just beneath the surface of Bach's Courante: [audio:bach_courante1.mp3] . . . to the profoundly introspective calm he achieves in the Sarabande right after it: [audio:bach_sarabande1.mp3] That's range, and maybe through his struggles Rhodes has developed a deep emotional reservoir that enables this kind of artistry. So maybe it isn't only Rhodes' playing but also his story that informs how I hear his playing. We love Beethoven in part because he wrote great music, but also in part because of his story, his myth. We sit in awe before the deaf man who composed the "Ode to Joy" and the "Waldstein" Sonata. We weep with him when we read his hints in the so-called Heiligenstadt Testament of suffering from a despair so deep it made him want to end it all (razor blades or pills he does not specify). But we revere, we worship his triumphing over all adversity, and for generations listeners have heard his music as nothing short of a collection of anthems to the human spirit. But I can't attribute my interest in Rhodes' playing entirely to the story aspect of the marketing that so cunningly conjures up a Beethovenian emergence from darkness into light, especially when I hear Rhodes play Beethoven. Razor Blades contains his interpretation of Beethoven's Piano Sonata, Op. 90, an interpretation at once assured and fresh. Beethoven instructs the player to perform "with feeling and expression," which is what Rhodes does: [audio:beethoven_op90_12.mp3] And, for the second movement, Beethoven tells the player to play "very singingly." In response, Rhodes "sings" this lovely little tune, with a beautiful sound and nice subtleties of phrasing: [audio:beethoven_op90_21.mp3] So Rhodes can play, he's got a good story (the details of which he has alluringly withheld from us) and he's got a marketer with a good eye. What else does he need? The profile of himself Rhodes has displayed on his Web site says that in Rhodes' debut recording "A recording that might be for some, the music 'of the dead' becomes the sound of the courageous and the fully alive." Whatever razor blades and little pills Rhodes may have met in the past, I'm glad he chose to go the route of the Dorothy Parker on paper, the one who, at the end of her witty (scary?) little verse on suicide, concludes you really might as well live. Rhodes' playing, thankfully, is very much alive.