This music sounds awfully familiar

Review: Billy Joel's foray into classical music gets praise, but the results aren't very original.

October 05, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Billy Joel's debut on disc as a classical composer is apt to leave you in a Chopin state of mind. Not to mention Liszt, Schumann and, for a minute, Bach. As for Joel, this just-released recording -Fantasies and Delusions: Music for Solo Piano (Sony Classical CK 85397) - doesn't offer much of a clue. If he has a truly original musical idea in his head, he isn't sharing it here.

When Joel, one of pop music's leading lights, announced years ago that he was heading into the classical realm (his last pop record was in 1993), there seemed to be a pretty decent chance for something fresh to emerge. As an accomplished "piano man," he could be counted on, at the very least, for distinctive keyboard writing. And as a proven melodist, surely he would find a distinctive way of expressing himself. Instead, Joel has let loose a series of what can best be described as imitations - competent, even appealing imitations, but imitations nonetheless.

The CD packaging provides the first clue to what's in store - it's a clever re-creation of the yellow cover found on the countless piano books published by G. Schirmer and used by piano students for decades and decades. Perhaps the idea was to present such a familiar look on the outside that the discovery of familiar sounds on the inside would be less of a shock.

Sure, many classical composers draw on the past; the wave of neo-classicism in the 1920s and '30s was a prime example, as is the neo-romantic style very much in vogue today. But an individualistic voice, one that is very much of the composer's own time, also can be heard in the best of such retro-music.

It's awfully disappointing to find Joel settling for ersatz Chopin, including almost literal quotations from the Fantasie-Impromptu in his Aria, Op. 7, and the E-minor Prelude in the Innamorata movement of his Suite for Piano, Op. 8. Joel essentially surrenders to a nostalgia for largely 19th-century melody and harmony; even in the technical aspects of the piano writing, he is merely recycling.

You can find dozens of pieces similar to Joel's in piano books from the late 1800s and early 1900s, when all sorts of modestly gifted composers wrote entertaining music in the prevailing style of the day. The idea of following their lead in 2001 severely stretches the limits of anachronism.

The obvious question is why listen to a Joel composition that sounds something like Chopin or Rachmaninoff or whoever, when you can hear the real thing? The next question is why doesn't Joel start studying composition with someone who might unleash the talent within that is obviously still awaiting an outlet?

The last track on the disc hints at one direction for that talent. Air, Op. 10 (subtitled "Dublinesque"), with its sly references to "Danny Boy" and its folksy spirit, suggests a composer more at home. We're still talking derivative (of Percy Grainger, for one), but also a level of honesty, charm and spontaneity lacking elsewhere.

Richard Joo, a competition-winning pianist recommended by the composer's conductor-brother Alex Joel, makes an effort to give each of the 10 pieces a dose of character and sails through the often considerable virtuosic challenges.

But in the end, there is nothing Joo can do to dispel the sad fact that the initial results of Joel's brave, even noble and, it is to be hoped, not final attempt at genre-crossing have been all too aptly named - fantasies and delusions.

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