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The holly and the ivories proclaim Yuletide in sparking keyboard riffs on old favorites

Submitted by on Dec 25, 2011 – 1:00 am

Review: “A Steinway Christmas Album,” a classy bundle of seasonal arrangements  compiled and performed by pianist Jeffrey Biegel. (Steinway) ****

By Nancy Malitz

In my home there’s an old CD jukebox, with slots for a up to 100 discs. Several years back we brought it off the shelf, loaded it with all our favorite holiday recordings and hit the random button on or around Dec. 15.

We dubbed it WXMS and let it play. The result is a melodious treasury — nearly 2,000 tracks — of truly great artists in many genres. Ella. Alfred Deller. Elvis. Pavarotti. Mathis. Tebaldi. Odetta.

Louis Armstrong and Wynton Marsalis. Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne. The Boston Camerata. The Baltimore Consort.

Nat, Brenda, Bing, Frank, Burl, Mel …

A beloved assortment, slowly accumulated, slowly changing. Each year I drop new discs in the optional single slot and live with them a bit.

By the 25th, I know which to nominate for a permanent home in the jukebox. This year it’s the glorious sounding “A Steinway Christmas Album,” compiled and performed by pianist Jeffrey Biegel on a 9-foot Steinway D in a sonic environment that puts you in a concert hall’s acoustical sweet spot. (In case you’re in need of one last instant gift, it’s instantly downloadable as an MP3.)

“A Steinway Christmas Album” opens with a sparkling rollick through “Sleigh Ride,” stylishly sleek thanks to Biegel’s considerable keyboard chops. (Download the single cut here.)

It’s also one of those arrangements that one would love to learn to play. Ditto for the most of the cuts on the CD, which is a pianist’s dream tour through the Christmas songbook.

When I caught up with Biegel, by telephone from the New York area, where he’s a busy performer and arranger as well as a faculty member at several respected music schools, I asked him if he had considered putting the collection into print for the rest of us. The answer, of course, is that it’s complicated.

The “Sleigh Ride” arrangement, for example, was created by fellow New York musician, composer and arranger Andrew Gentile.

“He’s a buddy of mine that I grew up with since we were toddlers,” says Biegel. Presumably no problem for permissions there. But “Sleigh Ride” was written by Leroy Anderson, a highly successful and prolific American composer who died in 1975. The rights to his original works are tied up in a web of commercial, geographic and estate relationships.

Each individual work would have to be considered in the same way, says Biegel. “The CD is a real mixed bag. I had no idea what was going to go into it when I first started, but I’m glad the way it evolved. It would be nice to have all the arrangements in a book with the CD included in it, but it would take some doing.”

Meanwhile, “A Steinway Christmas Album” is a disc of great listening pleasures. Biegel does an exquisite job with the sentimental waltz from “Yolka” (The Christmas Tree) by the late romantic Russian composer Vladimir Rebikov, performed at a silky Steinway pianissimo.

And there’s a brief and charming Beethovenian version of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” arranged by Donald Sosin.

There are jazzy treatments, including Steve Calderone’s “Christmas is A-Comin‘,” which starts out as a leisurely rumination and then pops into a smart stride complete with a left hand that mimicks a string bass’s plucked lower line.

And there are Biegel’s own modern covers, too, such as Ann Hampton Callaway’s “Christmas Lullaby,”  and David Foster’s “Grown-Up Christmas List.”

“I first wrote ‘Grown-Up Christmas List’ ten years ago for a player piano company,” recalls Biegel.  “The words are by Foster’s former wife, Linda Thompson, a worldly message about peace and hope. Every time I turned on the radio, I would hear great artists doing the song — Natalie Cole, Amy Grant, etc.  After hearing Streisand sing it in 2001, I just decided I had to arrange it.

“That was my first hand at doing pop music, but most people never heard it, because the only way to experience it was to have the retro-fitted piano doing it, live, in front of you.”

Here’s the player-piano player himself,  live on YouTube, performing “Sleigh Ride”:

Related links:

  • Listen to a Minnesota Public Radio feature on the disc:
  • Jeffrey Biegel has performed new works by contemporary classical composers as well as pop composers: Read his bio on the artist’s website.

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