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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

 

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Joshua Pierce - Music for Piano and Orchestra
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)

Young Apollo for piano and string orchestra, Op. 16 (1939) [7:36]
Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)

Le Carnaval d'Aix, fantasy for piano and orchestra (1926) [17:57]
(Le Corso [1:16]; Tartaglia [1:19]; Isabelle [1:19]; Rosetta [2:12]; Le bon et le mauvais tuteur [1:53]; Coviello [0:34]; Le Capitaine Cartuccia [2:19]; Polichinelle [0:28]; Polka [1:29]; Cinzio [1:32]; Souvenir de Rio [2:02]; Final [1:39])
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)

Eclogue for piano and string orchestra, Op. 10 (c. 1920, rev. 1940s) [8:56]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)

Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme - Orchestral Suite Op. 60 (1920) [34:33]
(Ouverture to Act 1 [3:57]; Minuet [1:32]; The Fencing Master [1:51]; Entrance and Dance of the Tailors [4:52]; Lully's Minuet [2:06]; Courante [2:47]; Entrance of Cleonte [4:16]; Prelude to Act II, intermezzo [3:02]; The Dinner [10:08])
Joshua Pierce (piano)
Slovak State Chamber Orchestra, Zilina/Kirk Trevor
Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra of Bratislava/Kirk Trevor (Finzi: Eclogue)
rec. Britten, 27 Jan 2004; Milhaud, 26 Jan 2004; Finzi, 31 March 2005; Strauss, 24 Jan 2004. DDD
KLEOS CLASSICS KL5137 [69:03]

 

This issue from the Kleos Classics label contains some of the more unfamiliar music for piano and orchestra in the repertoire performed by Grammy-nominated American pianist Joshua Pierce.

Pierce was born in New York City and studied there at the Juilliard and Manhattan schools of music. Pierce has been prolific in the recording studio and has recorded a wide range of piano repertoire for several labels. I first came across his playing quite recently on a set of Beethoven’s five Piano Concertos on MSR Classics MS 1200.

Britten’s main inspiration was a love of the written word and its associations with the people and traditional landscape of his native Suffolk. In 1939 Britten and his long term partner, the tenor Peter Pears, stopped off in Canada on their way to the USA. There Britten received a commission from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for a ‘Fanfare’ for piano and orchestra. The result was the short single movement score Young Apollo for piano and string orchestra.

Britten performed Young Apollo as piano soloist for the promised radio broadcast in Toronto but withdrew the work immediately. It was not heard again until three years after his death in 1979. The score was inspired by the conclusion of Keats’s unfinished poem ‘Hyperion’ and was thought to be a musical portrait of his young friend the German refugee Wulff Scherchen. Young Apollo is in fact a strikingly original piece of minimalism avant le lettre.

In the score Britten’s early dexterity for string writing is fully revealed in the exploitation of shimmering and radiant textures. Pierce and the Slovak State Orchestra, right from the opening bars, demonstrate a dark and chilly intensity, evocative of a storm in progress. From 03:50 the journey towards tranquillity becomes a reality. The playing strives to establish composure from 05:35 leaving the listener with a sense of calm after the storm. From 06:35 to the score’s conclusion at 07:27 comes the realisation of the aftermath of the storm.

There are very few versions of Young Apollo in the catalogues and I admire this stimulating account from Joshua Pierce and the Slovak State Chamber Orchestra under Kirk Trevor. My reference account of Young Apollo is that played with thrilling vigour and commitment by Peter Donohoe and the CBSO under Simon Rattle, recorded in Cheltenham in 1982, on EMI 5 73983 2.

The works of Darius Milhaud remain one of the unsurpassed quantities of twentieth century music. He wrote around 450 scores of such an uneven quality that his reputation for the banal and the shallow has masked much of his output that is both inspired and fascinating.

In 1926 when he needed another work for piano and orchestra he took twelve numbers from his ballet Salade and arranged them using the alluring title Le Carnaval d'Aix, fantasy for piano and orchestra. No one remembers the ballet Salade but the score to Le Carnaval d'Aix became one of Milhaud’s most popular scores. Pierce provides an impressive interpretation that is carefree and high spirited. The playing is outstanding right from the carnival-like festivities of the Le Corso, to the shy and sultry Isabelle, the childlike uncertainly of the Polka, the effervescence of the Cinzio to the Final section that shifts from an unsettling and sombre mood to one of carnival excitement at 00:36. I especially enjoyed Pierce’s interpretation of the penultimate Souvenir de Rio (Tango) section that skilfully moves from cool and refreshing at 00:00-00:45, to mature sophistication at 01:25-02:00, to carefree juvenility between 00:46-01:25.

I do not have an account of the Le Carnaval d'Aix in my collection that I can recommend. However, this appealing performance is of high-quality for its delicacy and rhythmic flair. The version of Le Carnaval d'Aix that is most likely to be encountered is the acclaimed 1992 recording from pianist Jack Gibbons and the New London Orchestra under Ronald Corp on Hyperion Helios CDH 55168.

Gerald Finzi was considered the most thoughtful of the composers who formed the core of the English musical renaissance in the early part of the 20th century. His fastidious craftsmanship is reflected in his small output.

The Eclogue was originally intended as a movement of a piano concerto – ultimately left incomplete. It is a meditation with Bachian touches underneath a pastoral atmosphere, that I have seen described as music for a warm summer’s evening. I do not find the score especially satisfying, as I experience the movement as a fragment from an unfinished piano concerto, rather than a stand-alone piece. Notwithstanding my feelings this gratifying interpretation is impassioned and deeply felt.

My favoured account of the Eclogue for piano and string orchestra for its powerful and thoughtful playing is from soloist Peter Donohoe with the Northern Sinfonia under Howard Griffiths, from Gosforth in 2001, on Naxos 8.555766.

The final work here issue features Richard Strauss whose colossal talents span two centuries. Strauss was typically seen as a giant at the end of the ninetieth century and by many as a tottering anachronism in the first half of the twentieth century, when his essentially Romantic idiom seemed increasingly out of place. Thankfully these views are changing as Strauss’s fertile works from his later life are becoming better known and more appreciated. After eighty to a hundred years or so we should now be able to reassess this music for its innate quality, of exuberance and emotional richness, rather than for the dynamic of the era in which it was written.

Strauss in 1912 wrote the incidental music to Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s adaptation of Molière’s play ‘Le Bourgeois gentilhomme’. The play was a failure but Strauss’s incidental music was considered a success and reigns for me as the major work on the release. Most of the music here assembled into an orchestral suite between 1918 and 1920 was used as a concert piece and ballet score. By customary Strauss standards the nine-movement score is relatively small - winds in two and a small brass section - and it features a piano part. Contrary to the view expressed in the accompanying booklet notes, the piano part is, I believe, too small to be described as a score for piano and orchestra and seems out of place in this collection. An alternative Strauss score that would have proved more appropriate for inclusion on this issue is his infrequently recorded Parergon to the Sinfonia Domestica for left hand piano and orchestra, Op. 73, composed for Paul Wittgenstein in 1925.

With the Orchestral Suite from ‘Le Bourgeois gentilhomme’ Strauss demonstrated that he could write directly, purely and transparently. Viennese music critic Richard Specht thought this the most gorgeous music ever composed for a dramatic play and was impressed with its richness of sparkling hilarity and fresh melodies. This version combines fine teamwork with a sense of the joy of discovery to reveal the music’s charm, delicacy and delightful wit.

A favourite account of the ‘Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme’ from my collection, for its powerful grasp of Strauss’s special charm, is from the German Chamber Philharmonic under Paavo Järvi, recorded in 2003 in Bremen, on PentaTone SACD PTC 5186 060. Another recording that continues to provide enjoyment is from the Staatskapelle Dresden under Rudolf Kempe on his complete set of Strauss’s Tone Poems and Concertos on EMI Classics 7243 5 73614 2 2.

This present release has generally clear and well balanced sound. The exception is the Strauss which blares in the forte passages; especially the trumpet and horn on track 17. The Kleos release has the advantage of high standard annotation.

A fascinating and well performed collection that I feel sure I will return to.

Michael Cookson

 



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