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James Rhodes - Razor Blades, Little Pills & Big Pianos

James Rhodes - Razor Blades, Little Pills & Big Pianos-Piano-Instrumental
ID: SIGCD153 (EAN: 635212015322)  | 1 CD | DDD
Released in: 2009
Signum Records
BACH, Johann Sebastian | BEETHOVEN, Ludwig Van | BUSONI, Ferruccio Benvenuto | CHOPIN, Frédéric François | MOSZKOWSKI, Moritz | SILOTI, Alexander
RHODES, James (piano)
Other info:

“Razor Blades, Little Pills and Big Pianos” explores the emotive landscape that we call “life”. This debut recording is somewhat of a biographical expression of James Rhodes’s complex and unorthodox journey. It was Bach, Beethoven and Chopin; not Faith Hope and Charity, that offered him comfort.

“James Rhodes astonished me at his debut with his perfect playing. He has the naturalness of Nastase and the innocence of a music reader without formal education from childhood, and therefore unfettered by over-instructions. James will deservedly go far.”
Sir David Tang
BACH, Johann Sebastian (1685-1750) 
French Suite No. 5 in G, BWV 816 
1. I. Allemande 3:34 
2. II. Courante 1:36 
3. III. Sarabande 6:13 
4. IV. Gavotte 1:07 
5. V. Bouree 1:15 
6. VI. Loure 3:16 
7. VII. Gigue3:15 
BEETHOVEN, Ludwig van (1770-1827) 
Sonata in E mior, Op. 90 
8. Mvt I, Mit Lebhaftigkeit und durchaus mit Empfindung und Ausdruck 6:16 
9. Mvt II, Nicht zu geschwind und sehr singbar vorzutragen7:36 
CHOPIN, Frédéric François (1810-1849) 
10. Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 5212:15 
BACH, Johann Sebastian (1685-1750) / BUSONI, Ferruccio Benvenuto (1866-1924) 
11. Chaconne in D minor15:51 
MOSZKOWSKI, Moritz (1854-1925) 
12. Etincelles, Op. 35 No. 63:05 
BACH, Johann Sebastian (1685-1750) / SILOTI, Alexander (1863-1945) 
13. Prelude in B minor3:19 


Rhodes' CD is called Razor Blades, Little Pills and Big Pianos because he was once a substance abuser. Piano-playing rescued him. The depths of his travails and the gritty determination he has showed in his recovery come through in a powerful account of the Bach-Busoni Chaconne. The furnace of Romantic passion that now consumes him romps like a bush fire through Chopin's autobiographical Ballade No4. Crisp, stern brevity informs his handling of Beethoven's two-movement Op90 Piano Sonata in E minor. Sensitivity and thunder are his hallmarks. Oh and an innate feel for the lightness in the Baroque dance movements of Bach's French Suite No5.
Read the full article here
Rick Jones

Classical Music Magazine, 28th February 2009

The quirky punctuation on the sleeve is irritating and the diverse collection on the disc will not appeal to completist collectors, but as an emerging pianistic talent’s calling card this is impressive. The dance pulse of Bach, declamory drama of Beethoven and cantabile texture of Chopin are conveyed with conviction and dazzling technique.

International Piano Magazine, March/ April 2009
Apparently it was Bach, Beethoven and Chopin; not Faith, Hope and Charity' that offered James Rhodes comfort, and all three composers are featured on his debut recital disc. From the outset, it is evident that Rhodes is a thoughtful and attentive pianist: Bach’s Fifth French Suite evinces an effortless sense of follow-through and clarity of line - witness the poise of the Sarabande or limpid eloquence of the Loure, though the other movements are hardy less perceptive. Beethoven's E minor Sonata is an interesting inclusion - Rhodes hardly puts a foot wrong in the first movement (listen to the sense of anticipation during the transition to the reprise or the fatalistic calm of its coda), and if the ruminative essence of the second feels marginally over-projected, then the two movements are not wanting as a complementary whole.
The highlight, however, is Chopin's Fourth Ballade, a particularly difficult piece to make cohere, and one in which Rhodes balances and integrates its distinctive but oblique succession of episodes and transitions so that an organic unity and, expressive roundness are never in doubt. Nor is there any lack of fine pianism in Busoni's ageless transcription of Bach's D minor Chaconne, though its initial understatement veers a little too much towards diffidence. It is only around the halfway mark that this performance really gets into its stride, building purposefully to an apotheosis that conveys tensile emotional strength without any hint of overkill. Rounding off the disc, the dexterity of Moritz Moszlowski's Etincelles and the soulfulness of Bach's B minor Prelude - given here in Alexander Siloti’s oncefamous transcription - are apposite encores in that they, extend the interplay of Classical and Romantic facets central to the programme as a whole. Along with an overview of the recital, the foldout booklet co

When I saw the title of James Rhodes’ debut recording, Razor Blades, Little Pills and 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 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 Gouldian 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 to the profoundly introspective calm he achieves in the Sarabande right after it. 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 Rhode’s 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: 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:
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.
Jennifer Hambrick


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