Rick Wakeman - Piano Portraits album review

Rock, pop and classical numbers retuned with love

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Congratulations to Rick Wakeman – he’s made it to 100. That’s solo albums, not years, by the way! And to mark his centenary of releases, Wakeman has literally gone solo, just him sitting at the piano, revisiting a few songs from his past, as well as celebrating some of the most influential compositions in history.

On the former front, we get Bowie’s Life On Mars and Space Oddity, Cat Stevens’ Morning Has Broken, and Wonderous Stories from Yes. In each case, he retains the essence of the original recordings, but adds his own particular palette using just the ‘joanna’. After Bowie’s death last year, Wakeman found himself reprising his collaboration with The Dame across TV and radio over and over as a nation sought to soothe its pain (a single came out on Rick’s label RRAW in February, with proceeds going to Macmillan Cancer Support). Here we get Life Of Mars’ drifting poignancy, Space Oddity has a wrenching sense of loneliness, while Morning Has Broken is a real hymn to life. Wonderous Stories, meanwhile, carries his timbre of inspiration that reignites the song.

It’s a cleverly chosen set. Such is his remarkable gift for getting to the crux of any music, he could probably have made the Teletubbies theme sound portentious. Instead, he’s gone for more weighty moments from across the centuries. From the classical world, there’s Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, Debussy’s Clair De Lune, Holst’s I Vow To Thee, My Country and Chopin’s Berceuse. These might be well known, but Wakeman imbues each with his own personality.

On the jazzier side, Gershwin’s Summertime is given a lively workout, and Wakeman also delves into more traditional English waters through the prism of Amazing Grace.

Naturally, there are more contemporary covers. The Beatles bookend the album, with Help to start things off and Eleanor Rigby to close. Led Zeppelin’s Stairway To Heaven has reached the status of hallowed turf that mustn’t be tampered with, but Wakeman strides boldly into it, and re-enacts its clamour and epic involvement with an almost spontaneous flourish. Finally, 10cc’s I’m Not In Love mirrors that band’s ability to skate from prog to pop.

This is a thoroughly entertaining album, during which Wakeman displays his virtuosity without ever letting this blur the fact that he’s proclaiming an abiding love for a wide range of musical landmarks. So many covers albums fail because the artist is either overwhelmed by daring to touch such masterpieces, or arrogantly overshadows the brilliance of the original. Wakeman, naturally, strikes the right balance. What’ll he do for his bicentenary?