Liaisons, the poignant ballad of b' />

Anthony De Mare's album of theatre songs by Stephen Sondheim, re-imagined from the piano, has the perfect title in Liaisons, the poignant ballad of better times, sung by the elderly Madame Armfeldt in the 1973 show A Little Night Music.

The musical "liaisons" behind this project, in which 36 contemporary composers imprint their personalities on to a Sondheim song, involve a startling range of talents.

Concert hall heavyweights Steve Reich, Michael Daugherty and Mark-Anthony Turnage share the bill with jazzmen Wynton Marsalis and Fred Hersch, as well as lower-profile composers.

With such a range of styles, Liaisons is not going to please everyone, but it presents a compelling panorama of contemporary keyboard artistry and ingenuity.


Nico Muhly and Steve Reich have their minimalist way with two numbers from Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George.

The one adds his own glitter and gleam to Colour and Light; the other pulls in a second piano to nail the compulsive momentum of Finishing the Hat.

Those familiar with the staunchly politicised piano sagas of Frederic Rzewski, such as The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, may be surprised to hear him paying such eloquent homage to that ballad of a showbiz trouper, I'm Still Here from Follies.

Kenji Bunch, a young American composer in NZTrio's repertoire, allows De Mare to preview NZ Opera's upcoming Sweeney Todd with a diabolic scherzo in tribute to Sondheim's demon barber. Every listener will have tracks that are instantly loved or loathed and I am still cautiously revisiting Ricardo Lorenz's south-of-the-border vision of Mrs Lovett's pie shop in The Worst Empanadas in London.

Yet the energy, invention and the persuasive performances demand admiration. In the best Broadway tradition, you never know what's next, whether it be Ethan Iverson peppering up Send in the Clowns with astringent asides or the piano in Andy Akiho's Into the Woods, suggesting Sondheim's universal fairy tale might work just as well in an exotic Asian jungle.

Verdict: The theatre of Stephen Sondheim intriguingly cast in a piano landscape.