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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 83 (1881) [46:48]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)

Les Djinns (1844) [11:59]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Concerto Pathétique in E minor (1886) [20:49]
Joshua Pierce (piano);
Bohuslav Martinů Philharmonic Orchestra/Kirk Trevor.
rec. 28-29 May, 10-11 December 1999, Concert Hall of BMF/Zlin, Czech Republic.
MSR CLASSICS MS1148 [79.37]

 

Some weeks ago I was happy to recommend a disc of the American pianist Joshua Pierce in four concertante works, three of them relatively little known (Kleos Classics KL5137 review). Here he is now facing one of the most daunting challenges of the whole piano concerto repertoire.

There was a time when a Brahms piano concerto took up a whole record, but now, when making a choice, we have to take the extra music into account. On this eighty-minute disc – as long as many a concert nowadays – there are two substantial works for piano and orchestra as well as the Brahms. Nobody could complain about the number of minutes for the money.

César Franck's Les Djinns is short symphonic poem for piano and orchestra. A djinn (or jinni) is a supernatural being from Muslim mythology who assumes different forms. Those in the Victor Hugo poem from which Franck drew his inspiration are particularly malevolent, and if Franck's music doesn't quite succeed in evoking the gloom and foreboding which Fauré achieved in his masterly choral setting of the same poem, the work is very effective nonetheless, and well worth getting to know.

Eric Salzman, in his excellent booklet notes, explains the genesis of Liszt's Concerto Pathétique. The work began life as a piece for solo piano and passed through many different forms before a version for piano and orchestra was arranged by Eduard Reuss, one of the Liszt's students, who showed it to the composer in 1885. Liszt then worked on this version himself, but when the work was published after his death the following year it appeared as "arranged by" Reuss. Salzman's view is that this has caused it to be unjustly neglected as inauthentic Liszt and that we should view it as another concerto. The fact that Liszt worked on it intermittently for nearly forty years is certainly reason enough to pay attention to the work, but claims to greatness seem more questionable. There are some striking passages, and of course the piano writing is pure Liszt. The orchestra's role is a subsidiary one, though the wind section principals have a fair amount to do. But the work never really seems to get going, and seems strangely lacking in purpose or drive. Joshua Pierce seems more convinced by it (and certainly more convincing) than the orchestra, who rarely seem to be inside the music. The closing pages, in particular, should surely be more exciting than this.

I wish I could be more enthusiastic about the main work in the programme, but I found it disappointing for many of the same reasons. The reading lacks those qualities which transform a decent performance into a great one, and sadly, in this work, anything less that great is unacceptable. Pierce rises well enough to the technical challenges, but all too often his playing lacks imagination and fire. The Eastern European-sounding horn at the opening will not be to everybody's taste, and we notice in this first movement a rather four-square attitude to rhythm which undermines both the music's strength and its tenderness, and which is typical of the performance as a whole. The second movement is taken quite fast, but the cellos and basses don't dig into the strings as they should in the opening phrases, and there is little rubato or expressive freedom. The return of the main theme, where the roles of the soloist and orchestra are reversed, usually a stunning moment, is here terribly tame. The soloist's playing in the figuration-dominated slow movement is often prosaic, three against two rhythms disappointingly literal at times. The all-important cello solo does not go well either, the playing not commanding enough to pass muster, and even, on this occasion, technically fallible. The finale is only intermittently playful, and the orchestra's second subject quaver/dotted crotchet rhythm seems unduly disturbed by the triplets in the solo part. The closing passage is a joyless affair indeed. The orchestral playing throughout lacks character and weight, and is not helped by the recording which places the piano well forward, covering some orchestral detail.

This concerto demands so much of its performers: power, endurance, tenderness, playfulness and more. The current performance does not totally succeed in any of these qualities as listening to alternative readings demonstrates only too well. Serkin (Sony) is incomparable, for example. Perhaps Pierce would have felt freer to express himself had he been partnered by Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, or by that incomparable accompanist Sir John Barbirolli, so lovingly supporting both Brahms and the young Daniel Barenboim (EMI). Then there is Gilels and Jochum on DG, as well as Nelson Freire with Ricardo Chailly on Decca, these last well-received performances of both concertos which I have not yet heard. And let us not forget Joyce Hatto on Concert Artist (a company for which I write), championed for so long by so many MusicWeb reviewers and only now, miserably late in the day, receiving her due elsewhere.

William Hedley



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