Guest review by Adrian Ainsworth

Rick Wakeman has been a consistently fascinating artist throughout his decades-long career. As a fan of both classical and progressive rock music, I feel he’s been a constant presence, his cape sweeping nonchalantly across any so-called dividing lines between genres and styles.

In contrast to the grandeur of some of his earliest and most familiar work, Wakeman’s most recent releases have felt more intimate and introspective. The 2017 album ‘Piano Portraits’ was just that: solo piano treatments – somewhere between arrangements and variations – of an eclectic range of pieces that covered Debussy and Fauré, Elgar and Holst, Bowie and the Beatles… and not to leave out his own band, Yes.

This new album, ‘Piano Odyssey’, is in many ways a sequel with seemingly deliberate echoes of its predecessor. As before, there are two Beatles tracks, and just the one from Bowie this time, amid other carefully chosen cover versions. Yes is represented by two new arrangements. On the classical team are Liszt, Dvorak and Handel.

As the album title suggests, though, a journey of some kind has taken place. Rather than simply repeat himself, Wakeman has added strings and a choir more or less throughout, diluting the forensic focus on the lone piano. However, the lush arrangements can’t disguise the fact that this feels like an even more personal project, surveying Wakeman’s career more incisively and giving it a perhaps unexpected unit

I think this unity is behind the quality I loved most about the disc, which is that it sounds exactly like something its creator would pull together – and yet at the same time, it feels like a surprise, not quite like anything else. In theory, given the forces involved, the classical feel should dominate, but that isn’t what happens. Instead, it’s rather more like listening to a kind of ‘chamber’ prog: Wakeman often deploys his string players and singers as if they were band members, the choir in particular performing ‘solos’, moving in and out of tracks as needed rather than saturating them. His own distinctive playing has him operating like a combined rhythm and lead guitar might, capturing the melodies at the top end with great delicacy (and some very agile embellishments!), without sacrificing a sense of real propulsion.

As a result, the pieces that really hit home for me are the two Yes songs, in particular ‘And You & I’, and the reworks of two of his solo tracks, ‘After the Ball’ (now merged with Liszt’s ‘Liebestraume’), and ‘Jane Seymour’ (originally composed on organ, and with Bach coursing through its bloodstream). In the CD liner notes, Wakeman explains how the new versions make what he was trying to do clearer, more audible. And there’s no doubt that ‘Piano Odyssey’ is giving him the opportunity to shine a light on his practice: without trying to ‘match’ or ‘outdo’ Liszt, he has deliberately designed his medley to show how the composer influenced him. (Elsewhere, he uses this technique to illuminating effect in ‘Largos’ – merging Dvorak and Handel with the utmost respect, but a refreshing lack of deference.) Equally, in ‘And You & I’, the sparkling high-pitched melody is so evocative of Jon Anderson’s vocal it’s somehow uncanny.

I don’t think the record is totally flawless. How you react to the more familiar covers will inevitably depend on your relationship to the originals, and what you want a new version to achieve. I felt ‘The Boxer’ was a misfire: to me, the song, while tender, has an underlying resolve and pugnacity that befits its title. Here, the slow pace fatally weakens it, along with oppressive strings and the choir contributing isolated ‘lie la lie’s with no context. On the other hand, a similarly sentimental treatment of ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ fits the song like a glove. The version of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is shot through with wit, subverting any bombastic expectations the listener might have – even Brian May’s guitar cameo appears out of nowhere.

Two completely new compositions again emphasise the personal – named for two adopted moon bears, Rocky and Cyril (Wakeman is a passionate animal rights advocate). Writing from scratch in this idiom allows Wakeman to produce probably the most nakedly emotional tracks on the record, the signature traits (again, the steady motor, the climb to the high register) reflecting how much of himself he has put into these pieces. And I think it’s fair to say that the whole album – a heart-on-sleeve musical autobiography-of-sorts – wins through as an accomplished yet totally sincere attempt by the artist to communicate a true audio sense of himself.

Rick Wakeman’s ‘Piano Odyssey’ is available now on the Sony Classical label.

Meet the Artist interview with Rick Wakeman


Adrian Ainsworth writes for a living, but mostly about things like finance, tax and benefits. For light relief, then, he covers his obsessions – overwhelmingly music, but with sprinklings of photography and art – on the ‘Specs’ blog, which you can find at

Twitter: @adrian_specs

Adrian is a regular guest writer for The Cross-Eyed Pianist

 

 

 

 

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music? 

My father was a huge inspiration for me. He was a fine pianist and played piano the Charles Kinz stride piano style. Along with my mother, they had a concert party after the way and with the other members of the “Wakeans”, as they were called, used to re-live the shows in our tiny front room in Northolt on a Sunday evening. Around 1953, when I was four, I can recall climbing out of bed and sneaking down the stairs to listen before getting caught and being sent back to bed.

I just wanted to play the piano so badly, and aged five I was sent off to piano lessons with Dorothy Symes, and indeed stayed with her throughout my grades before going to the Royal College of Music.

My father encouraged me to listen to as many different kind of music as possible and to play as many different styles as possible. I owe him so much.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career? 

There are so many – Dorothy Symes was such an inspirational teacher; being taken to see Swan Lake aged about nine and the same year seeing Lonnie Donegan (who in later years became a great friend and fellow Water Rat).

I loved Trad Jazz and especially Kenny Ball, who I also got to meet in later life. My father introduced me to Prokofiev’s ‘Peter and the Wolf’, which mesmerised me. Here was a story being told in music – that was really the moment when I knew that’s what I wanted to do: tell stories in music.

What have been the greatest challenges and pleasures of your career? 

The biggest challenge has always been people saying “You can’t do that“, which makes me all the more determined to do it, regardless of the consequences. I was told doing King Arthur on Ice was doomed to failure, and it is still the most talked about show I’ve ever put on!

Likewise, I was told it was ridiculous to take a symphony orchestra and choir on tour in America – red rag to a bull! I did it and it was fantastic! Every day brings new challenges and if you manage to overcome and solve them, that’s where the pleasure comes in.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of? 

I would probably give different answers on different days, but these are the ones that come to mind today:

‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ as that was the first solo album and was hated by the record company who kept asking when I was going to put the vocals on!

Also ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ and ‘King Arthur’ from the early seventies as well.

With my band, ‘Out There’ (originally released 2003) springs to mind as a very complex album where those around me really understood what I was trying to achieve.

The remakes of both ‘Journey…. ‘ and ‘King Arthur’ are very important to me as it now means there are records of the music to be remembered. Both of there were limited to the amount you could get onto a vinyl recording, so to do the full length versions was very important to me. I did the same with ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ and added the three missing pieces to a live recording made at Hampton Court.

In recent years Piano Portraits has meant a lot tome for many reasons, not lease that it was my way of celebrating the genius and friendship of David Bowie. This has led to my brand new album for Sony Classical, Piano Odyssey, which ventures a stage further with piano variations of the music I love, with a string section and choir. A lot of time was spent getting this album absolutely as I wanted it and so has a special place in my “recording heart”.

Tell us more about your ‘Piano Odyssey’ album….. 

When I recorded ‘Piano Portraits’, it was purely solo piano versions of pieces I loved or had a connection to that had great melodies, and I rewrote variations on themes for all. I was really pleased with the outcome and the album did extremely well, making the top 10 for more than eleven weeks. I had decided against a second volume; however, because whilst there were a lot of other wonderful pieces of music that I wanted to do, none of them would work with just piano in the way I envisaged them.

However, it was ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ that started it all off again. Now working with the team at Sony Classical, I had wanted to do this originally but just couldn’t get it to work on piano alone in the way I could hear it. I kept hearing a string section and choir, and had a Eureka! moment one day when I realised this was indeed the answer – an album of piano variations of great music but with the addition of a small string section and choir.

I prepared a short-list of 40 pieces and eventually whittled it down to the 12 I really knew would work – and that included Bohemian Rhapsody, which I sent to my dear friend Brian May. He not only gave it his seal of approval but added a cameo performance of beautiful acoustic guitar.

‘Piano Odyssey’ is everything I set out to achieve and indeed has even gone a stage further than I thought possible.

What motivated your selection of the music featured on this album? 

Simple answer – melody. There has to be a great melody that allows variations without taking away from the original. There are pieces from The Beatles, David Bowie, Paul Simon, Liszt, Handel, Dvorak, yes and even me! There are also two original tracks that I wrote in memory of two wonderful moon bears which were saved from horrific bear bile farms, and as an Ambassador for Animals Asia, I am proud that we have save so many of these wonderful bears and celebrate them here. Both the bears – Rocky and Cyril Wolverine – sadly passe away. Cyril was my own bear and the loss was devastating for all of us who knew him. I wrote both these pieces surrounded by their photos.

Were there any special challenges in arranging the songs? 

To be honest, no. I have been doing this for many years, although never recording them like this. I also have a good team around me with the Orion Strings and English Chamber Choir, who know where I’m coming from musically.

Do you feel that progressive rock is a way to bring some classical sophistication to the pop world and, if so, are your achievements in some way striving towards leading an innovative, “parallel-classical” career? 

When I started in the late 1960s after leaving the Royal College of Music, there were real divisions within all music types, whether jazz, classical, pop, rock, folk, country, you name it. They all had their own identities and seldom met! I deliberately set out to fuse as much as possible and at first hit a lot of brick walls, but slowly started getting the message across, and today there are no taboos which is great.

With there being a Prog-revival of sorts, does you think there is potential crossover for youth audiences between the two genres? 

There already is and vinyl has a lot to do with it. Younger people are discovering vinyl and album covers and the information contained on them. Music is tactile and vinyl is bringing that back. Music now no longer has a date stamped on it. You either like it or you don’t. There is no specific age thing any more either – that side of things is very healthy.

Would you ever consider making a fully classical album? 

I have been asked to and the answer would have to be no. Although I occasionally turn to Mozart and Beethoven sonatas or plough through the Bach “48” for fun, it’s not what I would want to do, if I’m honest.

As a musician, what is your definition of success? 

Success is sadly always thought of in commercial terms, but for me it probably only comes after you have departed this mortal coil. In other words, if in 100 years’ time somebody on radio plays a piece of my music, then I guess I can say I was successful to a degree…

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians? 

Believe in yourself. Don’t be frightened of opinions and criticism from others, as long as they are qualified to give it (which 99% of them aren’t!). Most people who try and tell you what you should be doing do so because they can’t do it themselves (many don’t know a crotchet from a hatchet!), but occasionally the odd word of wisdom does get through: you just have to be able to spot it.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

Alive please – and still able to play, composing and having music adventures.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

To be worry-free – so there’s no perfect happiness for any human being, I’m afraid!

What is your most treasured possession? 

My father’s upright Bechstein piano on which I learned to play and inherited when he died in 1980.

What is your present state of mind?

Jumbled! It always is – too much going on!

Rick Wakeman’s new album ‘Piano Odyssey’ is released on 12 October 2018 on the Sony Classical label. The album feature reworkings of material from his solo career along with Yes songs and covers of tracks by artists including the Beatles, David Bowie and Queen.