A Vivoscene Feature Review by Brian Miller
Vivoscene rating 8.5
For six decades Neil Sedaka has been writing and performing pop music at its highest level, reinventing himself as times changed and now with his new album The Real Neil, he performs the trick one more time by returning to his first love: classical music. In the album version only of this release, audiences will be granted a new audition of Neil’s considerable talent both as a classical pianist and now as a composer. That’s not to say that the old Neil has disappeared; in fact this album, which features intimate solo renditions of some of his best-known pop compositions, reveals Sedaka to be perhaps in the most expressive form of his life, vocally, instrumentally and stylistically. He has not only looked after his voice with great care; he is perhaps the only singer of his age (73) who can perform his hits in their original keys.
Born in Brooklyn in 1939 to immigrant Turkish/Jewish parents (his father worked as a cab driver), Neil revealed his musical ability in second grade. HIs teacher sent home a note urging piano lessons, which were afforadable only when Neil’s mother went out to work in a department store. Neil won a Juilliard scholarship before his 10th birthday, and studied classical piano at the Juilliard School of Music for nine years. He was good enough to be selected by Arthur Rubenstein as the best young pianist in New York high schools, and he was nominated to travel to Moscow in 1956 to compete internationally at the highest levels.
Unfortunately for Neil, and fortunately for us, at the age of 13 he had begun writing pop songs with 16 year old poet Howard Greenfield, who lived in the same apartment building. Tainted by his forays into “capitalistic rock and roll”, Neil was denied by Russian judges as a valid entrant. Well, pop music’s gain was classical music’s loss, until that is, six decades later with Neil’s composition and recording of “Manhattan Intermezzo”. It’s a 19 minute romantic piece of several moods, influenced by Rachmaninoff, Gershwin, Paganini, and it’s a splendid, unrestrained composition that will attract those who don’t normally attend classical concerts, as well as piano aficionados. The Intermezzo has been performed several times in the concert hall, most notably in October 2012 at London’s Royal Albert Hall with the London Symphony Orchestra. Here’s what Neil had to say about writing the piece:
I wanted to capture the spirit of New York, the melting pot of nationalities, so if you listen carefully you can hear the Latin, the Oriental, the Russian, the German… It’s not abstract and it’s not dissonant; it’s Neil Sedaka-esque… “Manhattan Intermezzo” is inspired by all of the romantic people I’ve studied and played”
The Real Neil features Neil solo at the piano, and for those of you who have only a passing acquaintance with his hits, we urge an audition of this album. Neil Sedaka is simply one of the finest popular songwriters who ever lived, and he is capable of singing (and writing) pop-rock and American standards with equal facility. He is a highly emotional writer: witness his truly beautiful compositions “The Hungry Years” (which he wrote, btw, about the breakup of Sonny & Cher’s marriage), “Immigrant Song” (dedicated to his friend John Lennon), “I Let You Walk Away” and “Solitaire”, each of which could easily be a new pop-opera masterpiece by the likes of Il Divo or Sarah Brightman or Barbra Streisand. While most of his hits were composed with Greenfield or Phil Cody as lyricists, in recent years Neil has also taken on the challenge of writing his own lyrics.
With the composition of “Manhattan Intermezzo”, a project urged to completion by Neil’s son, a new direction emerges. As for us, armed by the knowledge that many composers have done their best work later in life, we anticipate and welcome further recordings in this vein. This man is far from done! What he accomplished by rearranging his classic song “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” and turning an early 60s pop hit into a jazzy ginmill weeper suitable for Streisand or Dinah Washington or currently, yes, Adele, (are you listening, Ms Adkins?) is sufficient proof that other artists should investigate Neil’s 1000 song catalogue.
This man’s material has been both widely sold and widely underrated and thankfully The Real Neil addresses that in spades. It’s not only the highlight of Neil’s storied career; it’s cause for celebration among music fans of all genres, all time periods.
Intrigued? – take a look at the vids below. Amazing stuff from a timeless artist.
Track listing for The Real Neil
2. Beginning to Breathe Again
3. You’ll Be There
5. Breaking Up is Hard to Do
6. Laughter in the Rain
8. Broken Street of Dreams
9. Heart of Stone
10. It’s Hard to Say Goodbye
11. Queen of Hearts
12. Everybody Knows
13. Captured By Your Love
14. Runaway Lover
15. Mi Amor
16. Sweet Music
17. Manhattan Intermezzo (Bonus Track)
Watch: “Solitaire” live from 1976
Watch: “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” live from October 8, 2012 (live on QVCUK)