Pianist Franz Liszt brought down the 19th-century house playing souped-up versions of Beethoven’s symphonies. Rachmaninoff and Busoni later took similarly obscene liberties with Bach’s solo violin music. “The piano’s capacity to emulate other instruments, to evoke a whole range of colors, makes it the single most versatile conduit for a whole universe of musical expression,” writes pianist Christopher O’Riley. His new album of solo-piano Radiohead covers, “Hold Me to This,” is an important, if only sometimes successful, contribution to the grand old tradition of playing non-piano music on the piano.
That’s not to say that O’Riley reinterpretations aren’t enjoyable. The new album, a follow-up to 2003’s “True Love Waits,” is satisfying in exactly the same ways as its predecessor. O’Riley turns some of Radiohead’s most intriguing songs into virtuosic piano studies that feel like encounters between the bawdy romanticism of Rachmaninoff and the minimal figurations of Philip Glass. Harmonic complexities are added at will — probably to account for the lack of a distortion pedal on the piano — while O’Riley’s best approximations of Thom Yorke’s eerie vocals glide above churning arpeggios.
The songs don’t lose anything in terms of energy or forward momentum; O’Riley seems to rock out more than Radiohead. What the songs mostly lack are the individual persona so strongly evident in their original versions. In order to build up heavy waves of sound and approximate the effect of strummed guitars, most tracks are accompanied by lots of turbulent, fast-moving notes. There is not much rhythmic variation within these figures; they go on the same way from beginning to end in almost every song. The introduction to “(Nice Dream)” sounds a whole lot like the introduction to “Like Spinning Plates” when the latter’s nightmarish backwards-skittering static is left out. The same applies to the disc’s opener, “There There,” which lacks the original’s peculiarly hollow-sounding floor toms. (O’Riley’s liner notes plead that they are “there in spirit.”)
Other songs are more successful. “Sail to the Moon” takes the most basic of all chord progressions and makes it sound haunting and sickly. On the obscure B-side “How I Made my Millions,” O’Riley improves upon Yorke’s tinny upright piano, embroidering it with delicately chromatic treble harmonies. The melodic line of “Like Spinning Plates” is characteristic of O’Riley’s inventiveness; he achieves the pained wailing so characteristic of Radiohead through a beautifully unresolved gilding of the melody. And with its folky, swinging and unadulterated major chords, “Gagging Order” sounds a bit like a misplaced ballad from Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon.” Dense textures are conspicuously, and refreshingly, absent from the bleak “Talk Show Host.”
An interesting feature of this album, and one of the things that sets it apart from many a tribute album, is its focus on Radiohead’s lesser-known work. The only big hit O’Riley covers is “Paranoid Android,” giving it an appropriately rousing and dramatic treatment. But due to the constant accompaniment drive, the middle section (“Rain down on me”) is monotonously played at the same tempo as the opening. In the original, the section becomes a kind of drunken, torpid ballad, though in the transcription it’s much more a continuation of what comes before and after. The sense of strangeness, and of decayed grandeur, is lost.
None of this is to fault O’Riley’s musical talent. He is without a doubt one of the most interesting and vital pianists playing today, as evidenced by his willingness to explore different musical paths. He has a side career as host of NPR’s show “From the Top,” which features young classical musicians. His recent Radiohead obsession can be seen as a result of his past recording projects, a fusion of the slowly-evolving soundscapes of John Adams, the mysticism of Alexander Scriabin and the bravado pyrotechnics of Liszt. The care and insight he brings to these more “establishment” composers is equally evident in his playing of Radiohead.
His sound is rich, controlled and never pallid. His varied and subtle pedaling is especially welcome; it creates gradations of sound over sustained harmonic patterns. While O’Riley is not flamboyantly virtuosic, the extreme difficulty of his transcriptions is obvious. And he’s clearly written them to effortlessly suit his own hands.
But one thing O’Riley is not is a composer. His bag of piano tricks, while clever and initially pleasing, will only take him so far. Nevertheless, “Hold Me to This” satisfies one’s musical sweet tooth, especially that of a Radiohead fan. O’Riley immerses the album in rich harmonies, virtuosic display and novelty above all.