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American Rage

Conrad Tao (piano) (Warner Classics)

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

American Rage
Copland: Piano Sonata; Rzewski: North American Ballads – Which side are you on?; Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues; Julia Wolfe: Compassion
Conrad Tao (piano)
Warner 9029535477   57:85 mins

Conrad Tao’s biography creaks under the weight of awards (Gilmore Young Artist; Avery Fisher laureate): at 25 he’s already an acclaimed pianist-composer (and occasional violinist) and has been on every ‘one to watch’ list for years. This is his third release for Warner; a recording that once again demonstrates Tao’s jaw-dropping pianism and aptitude for programming.

The inspiration behind American Rage is thinly veiled. The disc is bookended by two works from Rzweski’s North American Ballads and the opening ‘Which side are you on?’ sets out key themes of moral struggle and solidarity. For the extended improvisation at the end of the piece, Tao uses a riff from Pete Seeger’s 1967 recording of the work song from which Rzweski’s ballad takes its name. The result is a brilliant, slightly bewildering outpouring of cross rhythms and stacked melodies that rise to a fury, before reaching clattering snippets of tune – and an abrupt stop.

That hint of resolution is explored throughout Copland’s craggy Sonata, a work written during the Second World War, when both domestic and international humanitarian crises were on the composer’s mind. Tao draws out the contrasts, his Gouldian vocal expressions clearly audible in this recording. Although initially distracting, with repeated listening they become part of the phrasing. Julia Wolfe’s Compassion is exquisite; in Tao’s hands the repeated dissonant fragments become meaningfully ferocious. The closing Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues (Tao’s reading benefits from neater sound than Ralph van Raat’s 2007 library favourite) sounds an historic alarm.

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Claire Jackson