Canadian Joel Hastings pulled his audience to their feet with a wild performance of Liszt’s Totentanz . . .
–Yahlin Chang, Newsweek
I don’t often wax rhapsodic over new releases, but this offering by superb native Canadian and local classical pianist Joel Hastings is one worth burbling over. Generally our musicians put together well-done, enjoyable recordings. Hastings, however, presents the work of a true artist in this new album, Sessions.
Upon my first listening of the Rachmaninoff compositions, which comprise the first five tracks, I was set back on my heels by the impeccable virtuosity and musical inspiration underlying Hastings’s interpretation. His astonishing evenness of tone brings out the shimmer of Lilacs and the contrasting virility of the Etude-Tableau, Op. 39, No. 1.
The disc has 10 tracks of Prokofiev works (you can never have too much Prokofiev), which illustrates not just his mastery over the most difficult piano technique, but also his stature as an artist. His control and depth of expression go from the introspective beauty of Legend to the aggressive, primitive stomping of the Allemande. This latter piece brought to mind an illustration in one of my childhood books of the hut of Baba-Yar dancing about on huge chicken legs.
Hastings magnificently polishes off Mendelssohn’s Variations Serieuses in D Minor, Op. 54; Scriabin’s Sonata No. 9, Op. 68; and Liszt’s fiendishly difficult Totentanz.
Were I listening to this without knowing the artist, I would have guessed it to be the work of a top-tier pianist such as Evgeny Kissen or Sviatoslav Richter. Hastings definitely falls into the category of world-class performer.
–Jeannette Luton-Faber, Ann Arbor Current Magazine
It is a misnomer to think that the top record labels have the monopoly on the most talented performers. I am captivated by the superb playing of Canadian pianist Joel Hastings; who is a name new to me. His command of dynamics and characterful performances make him worthy of considerable attention.
In the Rachmaninov scores I experienced the impressive Oriental Sketch briskly played and the rocking and colourful Lilacs at times evocative of an impressionist tone painting. With the Lullaby Hastings resists the temptation to over-sentimentalise; using a calm and gentle approach. The Étude-Tableau No. 1 in C minor is played with drama and vivacity, with episodes of strong passion. The appealing Prelude No. 12 in G-sharp minor contains sturdy dramatic contrasts.
Prokofiev’s Ten Pieces for Piano, Op.12 make delightful listening with Hastings very much at home here. In particular, I enjoyed his lively and powerful interpretation of the March; the restlessly scurrying Rigaudon; the mystery of the rhythmic Capriccio and the frenetic and energetic playing of the Scherzo Humoristique.
Mendelssohn’s Variations Sérieuses in D minor, Op. 54 is an agreeable score that seems to fall into six contrasting sections. I loved the gently restful section at 4:38-5:57; the sacred reverential quality at 7:05-8:48 and the vigorously dynamic playing in the final section that gently and rapidly dies away at 8:49-11:24. In Scriabin’s notorious Sonata No.9, Op. 68, known as the ‘Black Mass’, the soloist conveys a convincingly sinister atmosphere of dark foreboding, generating considerable tension with a quite magnificent concluding section.
The final score on the disc is Liszt’s Totentanz, that he arranged in 1860-65 from his mighty Totentanz (Dance of death) Paraphrase on the ‘Dies irae’ for piano and orchestra, a work he originally composed in 1849 and subsequently revised. Evidently Liszt had been inspired by the magnificent frescoes titled ‘The Triumph of Death’ on the wall of the basilica in the Campo Santo at Pisa. I especially enjoyed the way the Canadian provides a convincingly uneasy and searching quality to the martial section at 1:24-3:54; his dreamy playing of the carefree episode at 5:01-6:34 and the dramatically robust conclusion at 13:20-15:09.
–Michael Cookson, Musicweb International
Hastings was born in Canada, but his musical soul seems to have come from the Russian steppes. Sensitive playing of five Rachmaninoff pieces and a set of 10 short works by Sergei Prokofiev made up a large part of Hastings’ recital . . . The Steinway piano, brought in especially for him, rang with warm resonance at his every touch. Truly lyrical playing was heard in the “Lullaby” . . . and “Lilacs.” Extremely sensitive playing was again heard in the Sonata No. 9 by Alexander Scriabin. . . . [T]he Variations serieuses by Felix Mendelssohn received an insightful interpretation . . . the ensuing 17 variations revealed great harmonic originality and rhythmic ingenuity, as highlighted in Hastings’ sensitive playing. Capping the afternoon was a sensational performance of Franz Liszt’s Totentanz. Hastings’ playing was the most impressive single pianistic even of this local concert season. Torrents of sound poured out of the piano, with Hastings tossing off one hair-raising difficulty after another. His glissando runs were effortless in their execution . . . [T]his was a tour de force that all in attendance will long remember.
–Laurence E. MacDonald, The Flint Journal
The kinetic fingers of this young Canadian reminded me strongly of his late countryman, Glenn Gould. . . . He gave a dazzling, sweeping performance of Liszt’s Totentanz and a vivid, alive one of Mendelssohn’s Serious Variations.
–John Ardoin, The Dallas Morning News
He began with a magnificent reading of Franz Liszt’s Totentanz to close the first half of the program. . . . Hastings’ nimble performance of the Liszt work had Saturday’s full house on its feet cheering . . . . The soloist delivered a dignified performance, but full of the Lisztian dash.
–Ted Shaw, The Windsor Star
Hastings opened his recital with an extremely sensitive reading of Variations Serieuses [by Felix Mendelssohn]. . . . Hastings certainly understands the art of nuance and phrasing. . . . Each variation had a subtleness of tonal variety as an artist has with a painter's palette of various pastels. The pianist was the tonal artist in this composition. One was immediately cognizant of Hastings' beautiful tone. The ability to produce such warm and “singing” tone from the instrument is indeed an art unto itself.
Hastings' interpretation of [Prokofiev's Ten Pieces, Op. 12] was noteworthy. The pianist brought out the charm as well as the tonal characteristics of each piece.
[With Rachmaninoff's “Lilacs,” “Lullaby,” Oriental Sketch, and Etude Tableau, Op. 39, No. 1] Hastings' sensitive reading of these extremely lyrical pieces was memorable. This sterling pianist understands the art of subtlety in bringing out melodies and making the piano “sing” in a cantabile style of performance. There was never an ugly or an aggressive tone; rather, through Hastings' extremely sensitive interpretation, the audience had the rare opportunity of hearing this warm and beautiful music for its own sake.
[Scriabin's Sonata No. 9] was an excellent choice for Hastings to express some of his own ideas on philosophy and concepts in making the music aesthetical. Needless to say, his interpretation was a total success. Throughout the composition, the piano tone was lush, warm and colorful.
Hastings' brilliant re-arrangement of [Liszt's Totentanz] certainly reflected a piano virtuoso technique for color, tone and sense for the dramatic. There was exciting bravura, a thrilling technique and florid musicianship. All of these characteristics formed a wonderful artistic whole. . . . [This was a] totally unforgettable piano recital by Joel Hastings.
–Dennis Ferrara, On The Town Magazine
Bowing low over the keyboard, Joel Hastings pulled the audience out of the seats with a blistering performance of Liszt's Totentanz (“Death Dance”). “That last one, you need a fire extinguisher on the keyboard,” said Jing Ling Tam, associate conductor for the Fort Worth Opera.
–Fort Worth Star Telegram