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Joshua Pierce - Music for Piano and Orchestra
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1973)

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
Comparative review

This is the first of three discs received for review featuring the American pianist Joshua Pierce. That he is a fine player is evident from this collection, and biographical information in the booklet and elsewhere suggests that whilst perfectly at home with the standard repertoire he has also forged a reputation for contemporary music, John Cage in particular, and, more recently, Daron Hagen.

The rationale behind the rather unusual programme is explained by Eric Salzman in the accompanying notes. He argues that the orchestra and the piano were the dominant means of musical expression throughout the Romantic period, developing side by side, the orchestra making the big public statements while the piano served as the ideal instrument for domestic music making. It was this period of music history, of course, which gave birth to the piano concerto as a dramatic battle between soloist and orchestra. The writer uses this fact to draw attention to another kind of writing for piano and orchestra which he calls a "lyric or narrative poem" in which the piano tells the story and the orchestra "provides the setting" (with these roles sometimes reversed). There are, apparently, a "huge number" of works in this vein which are now forgotten. Well, I for one have forgotten most of them, and the argument seems only partly convincing. Salzman's presentation of each of the four works, however, is really excellent, perfectly balanced between descriptive and technical writing and a model of what CD insert notes should be.

From the opening notes of Finzi's Eclogue the composer is unmistakeable. The work was to be the slow movement of a piano concerto which never saw the light of day. It is an affecting piece, if without the melodic distinction to be found in other Finzi works, thinking of the concertos in particular. The performance is a thoughtful one, but a certain hardness of tone from the soloist allied to a close balance negates somewhat the pastoral tone of the piece. (An eclogue is defined in my dictionary as "a pastoral or idyllic poem usually in the form of a conversation or soliloquy".)

The soloist seems more at home in the suite of twelve short pieces which make up Milhaud's Le Carnaval d'Aix. The themes are taken from an earlier ballet entitled Salade and elements of folk music from Sardinia rub shoulders with jazz and tango. The music is mainly lively, often brash, though there are a few short moments of repose. It is all great fun, I suppose, and the work has become one of the composer's more popular pieces. But it is a bit relentless, and the steely-fingered pianist plus orchestral playing which also has its moments of harshness do nothing to counteract this effect.
Benjamin Britten's Young Apollo was composed in 1942 to a commission from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and the composer was the soloist in the first performance. For one reason or another he immediately withdrew the work and it was only heard again after his death. The music portrays the young god in all his hard, dazzling splendour. The opening is as icy-cold and brilliant as that of Les Illuminations (completed some little time before despite the later opus number) and the two works share the same voice. (Interestingly, at the very end of his life, Britten returned to a similar sound-world to evoke the Athenian sun in Phaedra.) The transformation of the opening theme into the closing gesture is typical of the composer's precocious talent during this period. A short reflective passage just before the end is sensitively handled by the soloist and the challenging bravura throughout the rest of the piece holds no fears for him. The orchestral playing is excellent. Peter Donohoe and Simon Rattle on EMI found rather more human sentiment behind the steely sheen of this piece, but I suspect that Joshua Pierce is more faithful to the composer's intentions. The work has had very few recordings and this performance is easily good enough to make the disc valuable for this work alone.

The programme closes with the concert suite Strauss prepared in 1920 from the incidental music he had composed for an earlier German-language production of Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Incorporating many elements of eighteenth-century music, the suite is sufficiently well known to need no introduction. It is rather the odd-man-out in this programme though, since the piano part is fully integrated in the orchestra and is arguably even less important than the solo parts for violin and cello, excellently played here by Frantisek Figura and Pavol Simcik. The playing is well up to the standard of the rest of the disc, but again I sensed a lack of charm and elegance, a feeling confirmed when I played Jeffrey Tate's reading from 1986 with the English Chamber Orchestra.

The programme is interesting and a welcome change from the usual concerto fare. Joshua Pierce is a pianist who need fear no comparison with the finest and the orchestral support from two Slovak orchestras led by the English conductor Kirk Trevor is excellent. The recording is close and rather unforgiving. These elements combined work well in the Britten and Milhaud pieces, and if there is more tranquillity in the Finzi and more simple charm in the Strauss than these performers display, this really is no reason not to invest in this excellent disc if the programme appeals.

William Hedley

And Rob Barnett writes:-

Trust Kleos to approach a collection of music for piano and orchestra in an unhackneyed way. This medley of works from the first half of the last century makes for a provocative mixture. There's two British works - each very brief, one quintessentially spiritual-pastoral; the other pagan, dazzling and international. Milhaud and Strauss stand as representatives of the two major European nations.

The Britten is work of gilded youth and celebrates - even idolises - youth in much the same way as Britten did at the other end of his life in the opera Death in Venice. Comparing Pierce with the Peter Donohoe/Rattle version on EMI Classics (CZS 5 73983 2) Pierce comes off best with a much more vivid immediacy to the piano and orchestra. The demerit is that the Kleos sound does not make as much of dynamic contrast as the 1982 EMI recording now available as part of a very compactly packed 2 CD set. Young Apollo was written in Woodstock, New York in 1939. It depicts the birth, to renewed youthful godhead, of Apollo 'quivering with radiant vitality'. The music has a static quality, a barbaric shimmer and a sense of fanfares, and awed celebration. The composer withdrew the work shortly after the premiere but it was revived three years after his death in 1976.

The Carnaval d'Aix took twelve of the seventeen segments Milhaud had written in 1926 for the commedia dell'arte ballet Salade to a scenario by Albert Flament and arranged them for piano and orchestra. He called it Carnaval d'Aix as a salute to Saint-Saëns' Carnaval d'animaux and as a tribute to his home town Aix. The Cinzio and Souvenir De Rio are a sort of mediation between Provencal folk dances and the tango and maxixe. As the author of the liner-note says, the finale like everything else here is brief, witty and charming. If you enjoy Stravinsky's Pulcinella, Milhaud's Le Boeuf sur le Toit and La Création du Monde and Ibert's Escales then do not hesitate. The de Froment-conducted version of Carnaval (on Vox) has more pepper and keeps you in closer and more tangy touch with the orchestral details. Pierce and his Slovakian colleagues are no slouches either.

Finally we come to the Finzi Eclogue which originally was to be the middle movement of a piano concerto (never completed) in much the same way as Introit was the middle movement of a violin concerto. The piece we know today has been edited by Joy Finzi, Christopher Finzi - who conducted the famous Wilfred Brown recording of Dies Natalis - and Howard Ferguson - who did so much for the Finzi revival including recording the song cycles for Lyrita and arranging the Oboe Interlude for orchestra.

This version of Finzi's Eclogue is not at all recommendable. It is here despatched as a piece of workaday routine with none of the vernal melancholy-ecstasy that lends wings to Finzi's works. Better to seek out the Philip Fowke version although the 1994 one on Classics For Pleasure 7243 5 75983 2 3. Best of all, though currently inaccessible despite its strengths, is the Lyrita LP version by Peter Katin. Katin seems better adjusted to the pastoral spirituality of the piece.

The Strauss Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme is the most extensive piece here. It dates from 1912 when it was linked into the opera Ariadne auf Naxos. This version is clever and entertaining in a neo-classical style.

This is an unusual and well assembled collection that should appeal to the adventurous listener.

Rob Barnett


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