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Sunday, March 19, 2006
Carol Lian, Carol Lian Plays
Know many CDs that span 250 years in their first 4 minutes? Pianist Carol Lian's album Carol Lian Plays does exactly that and a little more - going from some free improv to a Scarlatti sonata. Jump ahead another 4 minutes and the gap is bisected by the beginning of Ravel's "Sonatine." Think it works?

Generally, a track list like the one on the back of Carol Lian Plays makes me suspicious. I like adventurous programming, but it almost always works better in a concert setting. Inevitably, performers shine in, at most, a couple of musical styles. Only having one chance to listen makes me forgive and forget their failings and appreciate the new insights that can arise from hearing diverse pieces side-by-side. But with a recording, repeated listens tend to pound the performer's weaknesses into my head.

To convince me, then, Lian had a lot to overcome. Sure, the chronological gaps lessen as she moves deeper into the disc, but a fair helping of stylistic diversity remains. "La-no-tib Suite" follows the Ravel. It's a driving, playful piece by Lian's husband and S21er Jack Reilly that lives up to it's title (hint: read it backwards). Then comes "Tocatta" by Ralph Briggs. Briggs takes seriously the etymology of the toccata (deriving from ‘tuck,’ which was, “[f]rom the 14th century to the end of the 18th, a signal or flourish on trumpet(s) or drum(s)” says Grove) and reminds the listener that the piano is probably best classed as a percussion instrument. The CD finishes up by stepping back in time to “3 Preludes” from Gershwin and then leapfrogging forward to another of Lian’s improvisations. Phew, quite a journey!

Fortunately, Lian pulls it off via her confident performances and the care with which the pieces were chosen. The key to the disc's cohesion is that each piece suits Lian's crisp playing. Scarlati's trills shine; Ravel's arpeggios glimmer; Reilly's bi-tonal chords gleam. With repeated listening, subtle connections appear between the pieces. The tightly played grace notes of the Scarlatti start to sound not so distant from the close intervals of the Moderato movement of "La-no-tib." The figurations in the "Sonatine" begin to resemble the rapid-fire passages in the "Toccata."

My only quarrel with the CD is the Gershwin. The idea of returning to fill in the gap between Ravel and Reilly is clever, but it doesn't quite work for me. Ravel prefigures jazz, while Reilly reconfigures it. Gerswhin's assimilation seems a bit blunt in contrast, and, perhaps as a result, Lian's playing doesn't posses quite the same energy that pervades the rest of the disc.

All in all, it's a great listen. Sure, the era hopping means you might not be able to put it on in the background at your next dinner party. But if you had really cool friends you could. I’ll sign off with one question for Lian and Reilly: when do we get the 4-hand improv CD? In the meantime, Lian is headed into the studio for a new disc of Schumann's Fantasy pieces and more of her ownimprovisations. Keep an eye out for that one, too.


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