James Rhodes - Bullets and Lullabies
James Rhodes’s first release since signing with Warner Classics and Jazz encompasses two distinct and relatively brief recitals made up of short pieces and single movements from larger works. Disc 1, “Bullets”, features selections that are either toccatas, toccata-like or involve busy, perpetual-motion figurations. By contrast, Disc 2’s “Lullabies” are not so much lullabies as slow, lyrical pieces. Rhodes’s programming sense and canny running orders are worthy of any self-respecting DJ. The finale of Chopin’s B minor Sonata, for example, easily slips into Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” (dazzlingly transcribed by Grigory Ginzburg). Also notice how the “walking” accompaniment of the slow movement of Chopin’s E minor Concerto (via Balakirev’s solo transcription) sets the stage for Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte, or how the leisurely unfolding textures of Debussy’s “Clair de lune” are not far removed from Brahms’s Op 117 No 1 Intermezzo.
As usual, Rhodes’s performances are intelligent and provocative in a good way. Although he may dispatch the whirling first movement of Alkan’s Les quatre ages with Marc-André Hamelin’s smooth sheen, he pays keener attention to the left hand’s supportive underpinnings, while Moszkowski’s F major Etude comes off less like an athletic stunt than a graceful dance – and that’s a compliment! The way Rhodes imparts solidity and shape to the Chopin sonata finale’s unwieldy left-hand figurations makes me curious to hear how he’d play the first three movements. Although Rhodes’s slow-motion unfolding of the two Debussy pieces renders the music static and inert, keener attention to textural delineation helps the pianist more succesfully sustain similar tempi in Rachmaninov’s G flat Prelude and the Brahms Intermezzo. In addition to the clear and robust recorded sound, Rhodes sweetens the ante by providing his own disarming, witty and musically insightful booklet-notes. However you respond to Rhodes’s pop persona – inescapable in the way this disc is presented – the fact is that he’s a pianist who can deliver the goods and has something to say.