About a decade ago The Piano Man left the world of pop music to return to his first love that he abandoned at the age of fifteen, classical piano music. While he never received a formal conservatory education like his brother, this great love was never far from his heart, surfacing throughout his rock career is various forms.
With Fantasies & Delusions Joel reveals to the public the classical melodies that have occupied him for most of the 90s. Largely in the 19th-century style, the pieces in collection draw from the music of Chopin, Debussy, and Schumann which gives the impression that these early works have come from one whose classical personality is not yet fully formed. Still the ten pieces for solo piano display Joel's well-developed harmonic sense and compositional techniques. By comparison other rock-to-classical artists, most notably Sir Paul McCartney, appear juvenile in their attempts at this genre.
Three of the pieces are unmistakably Chopin-esque waltzes and the "Invention in C Minor" captures all the precision and logic of Bach. With eleven minutes of romantic, impressionistic self-expression, "Soliloquy (On A Separation)" contains much by the way of Debussy. The relationship flip side is found in "Suite For Piano" whose three sections describe the three stages of love: infatuation, consummation (says the composer, "You can hear the headboards banging…as closely as can be duplicated on a piano."), and complications. The album closes with "Air", a folksy, Irish-flavored piece that begins with wistful memories on the motherland and ends with a jaunty jig.
Knowing his own limitations, Billy Joel passed off the actual playing of his compositions to award-winning pianist Richard Joo whose dexterous playing captures the full emotion and nuance of each piece. While there are a good deal of melodies contained within, so far none have managed to worm their way into my head like those found in Joel's pop songs. Emotionally the album keeps a fairly even keel with no sudden bursts of passion or extended passages of melancholy, making it an ideal candidate for background music.
If you're a fan of Billy Joel's pop music, be warned that you won't find any singable melodies on this platter (at least not without multiple listens). Fans of Romantic era solo piano music such as that of Debussy, Rachmaninoff and Chopin (especially Chopin) should find this album to be a wonderful addition to their classical collection.
This review first appeared in WhatzUp, June 2002.