Thursday 11 October 2007

CD Review

The Browns are a group of 5 young pianists, all brothers and sisters. All have studied, or are still studying at the Julliard School of Music. Their first disc, just titled The 5 Browns, and their second, No Boundaries, both did spectacularly well and they have just released a new one, The Browns in Blue. The disc is firmly aimed at the light classical market providing an attractive mixture of styles and types of music, both familiar and not so familiar. The title of this disc, The Browns in Blue, is a bit puzzling as few of the pieces are blues, though the disc does mine a vein of gloom and melancholy.

There are 5 pianists (Ryan, Melody, Gregory, Deondra and Desirae) play on 5 pianos, but all 5 pianists do no play together for all the items on the disc. In fact there are 7 solos (Ryan, Melody and Gregory get 2 each, the others 1), 1 duet (Desirae and Deondra), 1 trio (Desirae, Deondra and Melody) and 3 quintets. In addition the 5 pianists accompany the trumpet of Chris Botti and the voice of Dean Martin, Desirae and Deondra in duet accompany the violin of Gil Shaham.

So there are only 3 items where we can hear all 5 of the pianists together, plus 2 where they accompany another person. For me this wasn't anywhere near enough. I am very fond of piano teamwork and feel that the group should have taken more risks and played more group items. Perhaps they should look at the work (and teaching) of Percy Grainger who was very fond of piano teamwork and used to use pieces for multiple pianos as teaching aids in his summer schools in the USA.

The disc opens with all 5 Browns playing the 18th Variation from Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. This introduces their principal virtues, a lovely sense of line, melodious tone and a superb blend. There is no sense here of 5 personalities struggling against each other, just a well honed 5-person ensemble. I wished they had recorded the whole piece, instead of an excerpt.

This is followed by Desirae and Deondra, plus Gil Shahan (violin) playing the Aquarium from Carnival of the Animals (Saint-Saens). The duetting pianists produce beautifully even arpeggios, again with superb blend. They make fine, thoughtful accompanists, never trying to overshadow Shahan's fine solo line. But why couldn't we have had this piece played just on multiple pianos!

Ryan then turns in a neatly understated performance of Piazolla's Retrato de Alfredo Gobbi from History of the Tango. Technically Ryan is excellent, but the virtues which go towards making the ensemble a fine, integrated ensemble do not necessarily make for a superb solo pianist. This thought continued over into Melody, Deondra and Desirae's performance of Debussy's Clair de Lune. This was technically excellent with a good sense of line, and beautifully transparent textures, but the performance just did not make me shiver, the way it should.

Gregory brings a good rhythmic feel to Aunt Hagar's Blues, then Desirae and Deondra return with the Romance from Rachmaninoff's Suite No. 2 for 2 pianos. They give a beautifully played, balanced account, but it lacks the depth and real feeling of underlying darkness that Rachmaninoff can need.

Melody then plays Brahms's Intermezzo in A Major followed by Ryan in Schubert's Gretchen am Spinnrade. Both performances are neat enough and very musical, but neither is striking enough to stand out and Ryan's Schubert lacks necessary urgency. Currently the group's strengths are piano team work and they should play to their strengths.

The 5-some team are back with Novacek's Reflections on Shenandoah. I found their performance entrancing, the piece is an inventory of piano techniques, but as a piece of music I was not so enamoured. Shenandoah is a sea chanty, but Novacek's version seems to have too many reflections and not enough guts and thunder for my taste.

Desirae gives a technically assured account of a transcription of Gershwin's Embraceable You, enveloping Gershwin's melody in pellucid ripples of notes. Then Gergory Brown produces the most assured solo account on the disc with Chopin's Nocturne in C minor, full of the darkness and depth that it requires.

The 5 Browns then reappear with a rather curious piece, a Fantasia on Dives and Lazarus which is credited to Vaughan Williams, Anderson and Sibelius. This is not a straightforward account of the RVW string piece, but if you forget this you get some fine piano teamwork and an attractive piece.

Melody plays The Swan from Carnival of the Animals, but as a solo with the melody embedded in virtuoso piano ripples; technically excellent playing again. Deondra's account of Grieg's Ich liebe dich is pleasant without standing out.

Chris Botti joins the group for the Home Blues from An American in Paris. Here the playing is supremely assured but too often the 5-some are relegated to accompanying Botti's fine trumpet. Couldn't we have had the whole of the Gershwin piece, played by just the 5-some.

The bonus track is something of a curiosity, the 5-some accompanying Dean Martin singing Everybody Loves Somebody.

There is some fine piano playing on the disc, though the solo items too often are efficient without enough personality. The group needs to decide on which area to concentrate, I would imagine that it would be tricky for individual members to develop a pronounced solo career and distinctive style whilst preserving the lovely integrated character of their piano teamwork.

I would love to hear this group again in a programme of larger scale works for all 5 pianists. I am aware, though, that I am not quite the audience at which the CD is targeted and it will undoubtedly prove deservedly popular.

The Browns in Blue
The 5 Browns
RCA 71322

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