If you're at all familiar with the wonderful recordings of David Lanz, be prepared: "Skyline Firedance" is like nothing you've heard before from the premier new-age pianist - and yet is an entirely logical leap in his evolution as one of contemporary music's finest instrumental artists.
Mixing and matching the concerto and sonata forms with an energetic, muscular modification of his earlier style, Lanz has created an opus that, more successfully than any other in recent memory, bridges the chasm between pop and classical music."I wanted a big sound," Lanz says in press material for the new release, "something you would want to play loud. Something with a lot of punch that could move you to action. It's still a pop album, but one with lots of neo-classical flourishes."
Over the years, popular musicians have often yearned to tap into the vaulting grandeur of classical music. Big bands absorbed and transformed themes by Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky and others; George Martin helped the Beatles incorporate string sections and baroque instruments into their songs; the Moody Blues achieved fame with the partly orchestrated "Days of Future Passed"; Deep Purple devised and performed a rock concerto with a symphonic orchestra; Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake & Palmer wrote a piano concerto; and Chip Davis and Mannheim Steamroller, always steeped in classical sounds, eventually turned to orchestras and choruses for the grand effect.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, as both fan and reviewer, I've often wondered why so many of us snap up all of these new age/contemporary instrumental albums - which are frequently shallow or only briefly interesting - when we have such a trove of great classical music to explore. Well, we can guess why; it has something to do with our addiction to the new, and to the moods and fantasies people like Vangelis, Kitaro, Ray Lynch and Lanz are so good at weaving.
Which brings us back to "Skyline Firedance," an album that mingles new sounds and old in a refreshing way that even venerated pianomeisters like Beethoven and Chopin might have employed or enjoyed were they around today.
"Skyline" is literally two albums for the price of one. On CD, the first disc, subtitled "The Orchestral Works," presents Lanz on piano as the featured soloist with the IFS Philharmonic Orchestra of Munich on 11 pieces, including a soaring remake of the Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin." Disc 2, "The Solo Works," presents slight variations on nine of the same selections, plus one more, with Lanz alone on the piano - just as he was when we first were introduced to his more intimate style on albums like "Heartsounds" and "Nightfall."
Yet this is the familiar Lanz with a twist. Lanz is at the top of his genre because he's both a superb pianist and a composer with an enchanting gift for melody and meditative reverie. But in his search for unexplored personal frontiers, Lanz apparently lit a fire under his fingers - "Skyline" burns with the leap, rush and swirl of flame.
Lanz, too, sees the difference. Most of his work in the '80s, including the single "Behind the Waterfall," can be characterized as having been created in his "water phase," he says. In a Deseret News interview just over a year ago, when his album "Cristofori's Dream" was atop the new age charts, Lanz said he was working on what he then called "fire music." "Skyline Firedance" is the result.
The orchestral and solo settings both open with "Vesuvius," either way an appropriately blazing launch. The pieces that follow range from the lovely and gentle to thefuriously electric. And it's fascinating to compare versions of the twin songs.
In "Dancing on the (Berlin) Wall," his fingers waltz over the ivories in both the orchestrated and solo variants. But while the orchestra version is pure 20th-century pop classicism, a full-bodied tapestry with sweet violins and high, bright trumpets getting featured turns, the solo piano rendition is lacy gossamer, alternately delicate and dynamic.
"Nights in White Satin" (supremely apt for this project and the perfect followup to "A Whiter Shade of Pale" on "Cristofori's Dream"), offers similar delights. With orchestra, the song is lush, majestic and romantic . . . if strongly reminiscent of the conclusion to the Moody Blues' "Days of Future Passed"; the solo piano, on the other hand, is lovely and deliciously different - I like it ever-so-slightly more.
The double-album set takes its name from the three-movement "Skyline Firedance Suite," a program piece that, we're told, follows the course of a day on a sci-fi world with two suns. The piano greatly dominates the concerto-esque orchestrated version, a vivid, imaginative treat; the solo setting is also strong, taking on a pseudo-sonata flavor - and it's difficult to choose a favorite among the two striking alternatives.
Happily, with "Skyline Firedance" we don't have to buy either "The Orchestrated Works" or "The Solo Works," one or the other - we get both. And together they constitute what is arguably the most exciting and significant pop-instrumental work of the year.