As the recording industry grapples with the reluctance of music lovers to pony up for tunes, one obvious remedy is the production of swanky packaging. And pianist Michael Lewin’s first release with the Dorian Sono Luminus label rewards paying customers with a beauty of an album. Bound as a miniature hardcover book, If I Were a Bird: A Piano Aviary brims with paintings by John J. Audubon as well as the performer’s own program notes for each of these 20 ambrosial vignettes.
Despite having been recorded at Skywalker Sound in Marin County, California, Lewin’s Steinway suffers from monochromatic production that would have been enough to sink the project of a lesser keyboardist. Fortunately, the New York native’s adroit voicing and tender touch give these avian-inspired shorts an autumnal quality undaunted by two-dimensional sound engineering.
At the midpoint of the album, the blackbird of Maurice Ravel’s “Sad Birds” sings forlornly through the emotional centerpiece—arguably Lewin at his most evocative. The Boston Conservatory professor brings an expansiveness to the ostinato blackbird call that leaves the listener in a cloud of melancholy. Introspective numbers like this and Charles Tomlinson Griffes’s “The White Peacock” account for the strongest selections here.
One might wish Lewin’s “To a Humming Bird” were a bit more fleet, or that his “Firebird Suite” did not sacrifice ferocity for precision. In the end, Lewin’s dexterous keyboard work and affection for this repertoire (not to mention gorgeous packaging) is something fans of the solo piano genre and ornithologists alike will gobble up.