Grand Piano Christmas

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
December 7, 2011
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St. Paul, Minn. — If you're like I am, one of the first things you do to get yourself in the holiday spirit is to scan the radio dial for Christmas music of all kinds. When pianist Jeffrey Biegel was asked to put together "A Steinway Christmas Album," he says he took a similar approach by blending everything from jazz to pop to classical. "I wanted a mixture that embraced all the styles," he explains, "There's some out-of-the-box jazz, and people who know me as a meat-and-potatoes classical artist are going to say, He did that? And that's OK, because that's a side of me that I let out sometimes. So it was a project really based on my love of all styles and something that I hope will become a classic over the years."

The familiar carols on this disc often appear in striking arrangements. Some of the most beautiful were crafted by Carolyne Taylor, a composer with whom Biegel worked on his previous Christmas release. Biegel asked her to write a couple of new pieces for this new recording. "I said I'd like something for 'In the Bleak Midwinter,' which is a beautiful song which Julie Andrews recorded on one of her Christmas CDs and I loved it. So Carolyne wrote it in one day and emailed it to me late that night. She put that together with 'Un Sospiro,' one of the concert etudes by Liszt. She did the same thing with 'Ding Dong Merrily on High,' which is a 16th century tune, and she fused that with J.S. Bach's 'Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring.' She's brilliant. Her writing is so heartwarming and so beautiful."

Russian composer Sergei Lyapunov composed Transcendental Etudes like those of Franz Liszt. Jeffrey Biegel came across another unique piece by this 19th-century composer which blends two different Noels, "It's the 'Fetes de Noel.' It's a very bright and brassy piece. You can just imagine some sections with a brass choir," he explains. "It's a wonderful, cheerful piece and it was fun to learn and record."

After finding Steve Calderon's arrangement of "Bring a Torch/I Saw Three Ships" in a music magazine, Biegel chose it for this disc--and then looked him up online and asked him if he had any other arrangements that could be included. So Calderon sent him, "Christmas is A-Comin'." "He writes out this jazz improv, like you're sitting by a piano in a cocktail bar with a little glass on top and people are putting some coins in - it's really laid back," Biegel explains. "And then he goes into this great, bright upbeat piano playing with a left hand that sounds like a string bass. So it's like Ray Brown accompanying me on piano. It's really cool."

No Christmas recording would be complete with the popular classic "Sleigh Ride," by Leroy Anderson, "'Sleigh Ride' is an interesting story." Biegel adds, "I have a friend for over 40 years - he grew up around the corner from us. And he used to ride his tricycle around to hear me practice. And we stayed friends. He ended up being a pianist. He went to the conservatories and he's an incredible arranger. His name is Andrew Gentile." Biegel asked Andy to create a transcription of "Sleigh Ride" for this recording. "So a week and a half before the recording sessions I get it. I thought, oh my god, leave it to Andy. He's going to write something pianistic in a big sense. It has a three and four hand effect. It's brilliant!"

Jeffrey Biegel also includes a gentle treatment of German composer Max Reger's "Christmas Dream," a paraphrase of "Silent Night." For Reger, this was a reminiscence of youth.Biegel recalls that this piece in particular struck a chord with his 15-year-old son who was listening to it while studying one night, "and he says, I really like that one. When I think of that, I think of peaceful snow, very pretty Christmastime. That really touched me that he said that."

There are four arrangements by Jeffrey Biegel on this recording, including the piece that he says really reflects his true self. "I think that the 'Auld Lang Syne' of anything on this disc is probably the epitome of what I am," Biegel confesses. "The deepest part of my soul is that piece. So when people hear it they're really listening to me, personified. And maybe that's why it gets me because it's like I'm totally in touch with myself with that particular piece."

Even though Jeffrey Biegel grew up in a Jewish household, he loves Christmas. To him, Christmas is all about peace, hope, and goodwill, no matter what religion you celebrate. His zest for the holiday is unmistakable--in conversation, and on his new disc, "A Steinway Christmas."

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