Nicholas Unwin

Piano Music by Jean-Michel Damase

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While not yet a household name, Jean-Michel Damase may become better known to fans of modern piano music through this critically praised release from Somm. Very much in accord with French composers of the early twentieth century, Damase comes off as a latter-day Impressionist or a beneficiary of Les Six, though he is gifted with enough invention and individuality not to sound wholly derivative of his predecessors. His engaging music offers flashes of Debussy's evanescent colors, Ravel's piquant harmonies, and Poulenc's buoyant wit; but Damase's piano works are sufficiently up-to-date in their stylistic allusions, additive rhythms, jazz harmonies, and pop moods to sound like products of our time. But if these descriptions are not adequate, Damase's music is eminently likeable for its liveliness, and his melodies are surprisingly catchy on a first hearing, quite rare in contemporary keyboard music. Works like the joyous Thème et Variations (1956) and the flashy Sonate (1953) have an insouciance that marks them as a young man's efforts; and Damase's compositions of the following decades -- Apparition (1968) and Huit Etudes (1977) -- retain the same accessibility and good-natured qualities found in the early pieces. Perhaps the freshest of these bonbons are the Sonatine (1991) and the Introduction et Allegro (1992), refined pieces that make their points with economy and subtlety, but also allow for some sly references to music of the past. In addition to the attention it won for the composer, this 2003 recording has garnered kudos for pianist Nicholas Unwin, whose performances demonstrate that he has the right combination of humor, technical panache, and showmanship to execute Damase's best effects, and the expressiveness and taste to keep the music from flying off into kitsch. Somm's recording is fine, with great clarity and resonance, though the volume levels seem a little variable in spots.

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