Jon Kimura Parker
Many a domestic fantasy at this time of year involves good company around a crackling fireside. The encircling gloom and chill cry out for a fine storyteller to keep the onset of winter at bay.
For some, the storyteller is a favourite video game. For others, a novel, or binge-watching a series on Netflix. But as the northwesterly wind has been getting ever more inhospitable, I’ve found evening solace in the arms – or, more accurately, the hands – of pianist Jon Kimura Parker.
The veteran virtuoso continues to climb high in his ongoing explorations of the toughest-to-scale peaks in the pianistic repertoire.
While his spectacular keyboard adaptations of Igor Stravinsky’s big ballet scores left me slack-jawed in admiration for his incredible technical skills, Parker’s latest album, Fantasy, freshly pressed in time for the holiday season, goes beyond inspiring awe to enchant with each play.
Fantasy is not just a technical showcase, but a big, clear picture window of a musician with a rich soul and great artistic depth. It is also a fantastic example of programming that entertains as well as edifies.
Parker mixes two works that are demanding technically as well as artistically – Franz Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasie (in C minor, D760) and Robert Schumann’s Op. 17 Fantasie with two extravagant modern spins on material from the musical stage: the Wizard of Oz Fantasy by William Hirtz (adapted by Parker for two hands instead of four) and Fantasia alla Cavalleria Rusticana by Calogero D Liberto, one of Parker’s graduate students at Rice University in Texas.
Rounding out this fantastical album is Mozart’s unfinished D minor Fantasia (K397) – complete with Parker’s own tastefully improvised ending.
There is plenty of impeccably prepared and cooked musical meat here to satisfy the serious listener, as well as more frothy stuff to add some smiles, if not outright laughter to the 75 minutes of programming.
Liberto and Hirtz have both incorporated familiar tunes from the source works into the sort of pianistic fireworks that leave recital audiences shouting for more. Mozart’s Fantasia is brilliantly paced and modulated as Parker gracefully negotiates the piece’s abrupt shifts and turns.
But for me the biggest treats are the Schubert and Schumann, which open and close the disc. Playing the notes is never enough – and never more so than in these two great works of the early Romantic repertoire. Both pieces sprawl in the same way that Goethe’s Werther just can’t seem to get enough angst as he stumbles through his unhappy heart’s journey.
The greatest interpreters figure out how to organize the sprawl to let each story unfold seemingly naturally in its modulations from minor to major, from explosive outbursts to moments of introspection when time is meant to stand nearly still.
Parker more than meets the challenge in crisply tailored interpretations that simultaneously embrace the Romantic angst at the root of both composers’ intentions, while never making the music sound excessively melodramatic.
In short, Parker has made these great musical stories even more compelling, seemingly effortlessly – which is a great storyteller’s true secret weapon.
This is a fabulous effort that also happens to be beautifully produced, with a rich, satisfying sound from a Hamburg Steinway piano.