Liaisons: Re-imagining Sondheim from the piano

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Stephen Sondheim
LABELS: ECM
ALBUM TITLE: Liaisons
WORKS: Stephen Sondheim – arr. Balcom, Muhly, Reich, Rakowski, Beglarian, Brown, Sheik, Rockwell, Marsalis, Bermel, Hersch, Gosfield, Heggie, Bunch, Iverson, Lorenz, Moravec, Bates, Rzewski, Shire, Musto, Turnage, Kline, Speach, Roumain, Akiho, Gordon, Vigeland, Sharman, Kahane, Newman, Bischoff, Childs, Golub, Leon, Daugherty, and De Mare
PERFORMER: Anthony de Mare (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 481 1780

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Stripped of Jonathan Tunick’s imaginative orchestrations, Stephen Sondheim’s show songs can sometimes seem rhythmically fidgety or melodically bare when accompanied just by a naked piano in a recital or revue. But there’s nothing bare about this collection of 37 piano ‘re-imaginings’ of Sondheim’s music, instigated and superbly played (with a recording to match) by the always adventurous Anthony de Mare.

Fittingly, the mostly American talents approached come from across the classical-jazz-rock spectrum, and you can’t always tell in advance where the jewels will lie. Bolcom’s A Little Night Fughetta, grave as Bach, carries a weight far beyond its one minute and 41 seconds; Rzewski fashions a wonderfully meditative fantasia out of I’m Still Here; and it’s fascinating to find Sondheim turning into Steve Reich in the hiccupping rhythms of Reich’s Finishing the Hat. But I wasn’t prepared for the larkish delights of Andy Akiho’s Into the Woods; the Lisztian panache of Jake Heggie’s fantasia spun from A Weekend in the Country; or the tender probings of Bernadette Speach’s In and Out of Love and Moravec’s I Think About You.

Thirteen pieces derive from two of the most musically complex shows, Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park with George. Some composers hew close to their source; some veer wildly; and a handful, including Muhly, Turnage, and Tania Léon, run aground. But the duds never seriously compromise the joy and diversity of De Mare’s enterprise and artistry, or the haunting power of Sondheim’s original songs, reflected in 37 crazy mirrors.

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Geoff Brown