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Reviews of CDs from Nigel Kennedy, Greg Anderson, Elizabeth Joy Roe

NIGEL KENNEDY: The Four Elements

Nigel Kennedy, members of the Orchestra of Life (Sony) Record labels sometimes indulge their A-listers by allowing the stars’ vanity projects to grace their (otherwise mostly) distinguished catalogs. Most of these sink quietly away after a short time. But Sony’s decision to release Nigel Kennedy’s “The Four Elements’’ merits some comment.

This is, simply put, some of the worst music I have ever heard. Evidently, Kennedy used the ancient idea that all things are made up of earth, air, fire, and water to create what the back cover of the CD calls “his own 21st-century response to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.’’ Kennedy also wrote lyrics, including: “Earth is the mother of all and the/ source of every birth/ her creatures great or small are/ all of equal worth.’’

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Kennedy plays violin and electric violin, though it is hard to assess his skills in a piece so musically thin. He also plays guitar during the “Earth’’ section, and sings on the mercifully brief closing track, “Encore (It’s Plucking Elemental).’’

“The Four Elements’’ will be lumped into the “crossover’’ category, and in that there is some truth. The piece manages to take all the worst aspects of prog rock, jazz fusion, Riverdance-type Celtism, trance music, and rock opera and brings them together in one handy place.

DAVID WEININGER

WHEN WORDS FADE: Night Songs for Piano Duo Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe, piano duo (Steinway & Sons) Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe continue their bid for the classical rock star niche - if there is such a thing - with a collection of four-hand arrangements of famous songs, classical and popular. Ignore the videos in the paired DVD, which are all about making Anderson and Roe look good in fancy clothing. Anderson and Roe, young Juilliard grads, are prodigious pianists and more than fair arrangers. They pick substantial music (a Vivaldi aria, Villa-Lobôs’ famous tune from Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5, Schubert’s “Erlkönig,’’ among others), and always capture its spirit and energy. However, they never startle you. The harmonic progressions are conservative (Liszt, the greatest of arrangers, was less so!), and they rarely turn it down for a simple or a quiet passage, for contrast and to heighten the inner drama.

In their version of Schubert’s “Erlkönig,’’ for example, the doubled-up galloping chords are constantly into the foreground, instead of rising and falling around the three characters’ voices. The dramatic arc of Goethe’s ballad disappears. Compare Liszt’s version, which makes the three voices quite characterful, and allows enough quiet for the chilling denouement.

The best arrangements are the simplest. A set of variations on Papageno’s arias from Mozart’s “Magic Flute’’ is a fine little 18th-century jewel box. The “Carmen Fantasy,’’ a 13-minute monster for two pianos, includes showy variations on the “Habanera,’’ a beautiful, dark “Card’’ scene (almost ruined by fairy arpeggios in the treble), and a final Gypsy dance that gets sloppy as it goes over the top. The pop songs are fun novelties. Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean’’ has a touch of the original’s twilit-obsessive quality, a tribute to Jackson’s harmonic genius, but one misses the hot breath of his voice. If Anderson and Roe would record something originally written for four hands - say, Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor, for example, or Debussy’s “Petite Suite’’ - one would have a better sense of their seriousness, taste, and sensitivity.

DAVID PERKINS
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