"...well worth your attention...A nice mix-and-match of styles not all that far apart."
BACH: Concerto No. 1 in d, BWV 1052; HINDEMITH: The Four Temperaments;
BLOCH: Concerto Grosso No. 1 – Joshua Pierce, piano/ Capella
Istropolitana/ Slovak Radio Sym. Orch./ Kirk Trevor – MSR Classics MS
1415, 74:19 [Distr. by Albany]
Though Joshua Pierce is the headliner here he really isn’t except in the
Bach concerto. Not that I am complaining; though earlier in my life I
tolerated only “complete” albums by one composer, now I rather like
these “mixed” programs, especially those that on the surface seem so
disparate. Neither the Hindemith nor the Bloch has anything to commend
itself to a soloist—most orchestras playing either one of these would be
content with the house pianist in the role. But obviously Pierce has a
love for each of them and so I certainly can’t grumble about their
presence here. But first to the Bach.
There are a lot of recordings of this piece out there - lots - so it takes some guts to even approach the studio with this thing in hand. Gould and others have set the standard. Pierce, whom I have looked upon as a bit of a romantic, really doesn’t take that path here. Instead he is more aligned with modern sensibilities - so called - with quick tempos and rather clipped articulation. This isn’t bad, and I would certainly rate this on a par with most other recordings out there.
What makes the Bach more interesting is what follows it. Hindemith’s
Four Temperaments is a superb piece not played that often though it does have a decent but small recorded history. The version by the late James De Priest is one that I have always held in high regard, along with the composer’s own with the Berlin Phil. So this one is very welcome and is played with a lot of spirit and panache. The piece is actually called Theme and Variations for Piano and Strings so there is somewhat of a soloist component to it. The work, originally commissioned as a ballet score, takes the four humors connected with a body fluid - not attractive as a premise, I know - to assert four separate variations. It’s linear dimensions and contrapuntal activity work well after the Bach and one immediately ascertains the connection.
The Bloch piece was written in Santa Fe and completed in Cleveland,
ostensibly with the idea to show students that it was still possible to
write convincing tonal music at a time when it was supposedly on its
deathbed. It succeeds brilliantly and has become one of his most-played and recorded works, though oddly there are only 13 now available, the ones by Quincy Porter in San Diego and Howard Hanson at Eastman being
among the best. Add this one to it—Maestro Trevor has the true measure
of the piece in a nicely balanced and lovingly crafted interpretation
that does the piece full justice.
This is a fine recording, though if pressed I think I favor the
Hindemith the most. Pierce is excellent in all three, and each has its
felicities and well worth you attention.
- Steven Ritter, Audiophile Audition, August 2, 2013
"Voice and piano intertwine dynamically throughout."
Vincent Persichetti: Harmonium
Sherry Overholt (soprano), Joshua Pierce (piano)
Recorded at Lefrak Auditorium, Queens College, New York (January 2012)– 60’17
MSR Classics MS 1432 – Booklet in English includes complete text
Here we have a world premiere recording of an ambitious work composed in 1951. The first question that pops to mind is: “Does the work deserve its obscurity or not?” The quick answer is “No” - but there are understandable reasons for its obscurity.
Reason number one is the work’s length: a full hour of singing by one performer is daunting for both performer and audience. Reason number two is the nature of the content: 20 poems by Wallace Stevens from a collection of his poems, titled Harmonium, published in 1931. (An earlier volume containing most of the poems was published in 1923; a remarkably small number of copies were sold, but the 1931 edition became at least a succès d’estime and Stevens became very influential.) As the wonderfully informative program notes state, the poems are noted for their “extreme opacity”, another way of saying they are hard to understand. There is no story, no dramatic arc. Persichetti has seized the work, but as an aural-only musical experience, it requires a great deal of concentrated listening.
Stevens is noted not just as a seminal modernist poet, but one who worked at a day job in a field considered remote from the avant-garde, namely as an executive in an insurance firm in Hartford, Connecticut. However, at the time his poems were issued, Hartford became (for a brief period) the American foothold for surrealism under the dynamic direction of A. Everett “Chick” Austen who ran the city’s art museum, the Wadsworth Atheneum. The museum hosted the first American surrealist art show and the world premiere of the Virgil Thomson/Gertrude Stein Four Saints in Three Acts. I can’t help but feel that a performance of Harmonium ought to be staged somehow to reflect this artistic ferment. (Just as György Kurtág’s 50-minute-long Kafka-Fragmente benefited by being given a dynamic staged performance by Toronto’s Against the Grain Theatre Company - reviewed on this website.)
As for the twenty songs in the cycle: most are very short (two minutes or less) and longer ones are further subdivided into the sections of the Stevens poem. The longest is the final number, “Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird” which has 13 sections and could well be described as a song cycle on its own. (If the title sounds familiar this could be that it has been set by other composers as well - e.g., Lukas Foss.) Eric Salzman, in his informative notes, describes Persichetti’s use of “dissonance, consonance, bitonality, neo-classical rhythmic energy, smooth flow, piano virtuosity, expressionist disconnect, tone painting, a dry academic exercise but a lively, inventive set of creations that reflect the almost overwhelming multiplicity of expressions in the poems.
Voice and piano intertwine dynamically throughout. (Here is yet another situation where “accompaniment” is absolutely the wrong word in describing the piano part.)
Parts (most notably the third poem, “Theory”) will remind the listener of Aaron Copland’s settings of Emily Dickinson composed the year before Persichetti set Harmonium. (Persichetti also set some Dickinson poems.) The sixth poem “The wind shifts” is onomatopoeic. The ninth song, “In the season of grapes”, resorts to straightforward operatic declamation. Another cycle the work brings to mind is Eight Songs for Mad King (Peter Maxwell Davies, 1969).
Both soprano Sherry Overholt and pianist Joshua Pierce give fully engaged performances. The soprano’s bio notes her extensive recital experience but fails to give information as to how often she has performed all or some of these songs. I would guess a good deal. (Some might not like her vibrato, always a fraught subject.)
Wallace Stevens is an established name in the American canon. He is probably more widely read and studied than Vincent Persichetti. It would be great if this well-produced (but still challenging - even daunting for many) recording were to result in more live performances of this intriguing work.
- Michael Johnson, The Classical Music Network, July 23, 2013
Pierce: An experienced veteran in meeting the demands of 20th-century American music
"To be sure, the demands of this cycle—with regard to intelligent musicianship as well as sheer vocal agility and beauty of tone—are great. There are not many sopranos capable of truly mastering it, and Sherry Overholt is to be congratulated for even taking on such a challenge. On the other hand, pianist Joshua Pierce is an experienced veteran in meeting the demands of 20th-century American music, from Nicolas Flagello to John Cage. He has a long history of involvement with the music of Persichetti, and he projects the details of his contribution with ease and aplomb—and far more effectively than the pianist on the Arizona recording. In this work the piano is an equal partner, not an accompaniment, and its importance is acknowledged by its prominence in the recording balance. In fact, I suspect that listeners new to the work will find themselves “grabbed” by some of the piano parts before they are captivated by the vocal lines.
In any event, this new release— is a milestone in the history of American music on recordings. I would go so far as to assert that Harmonium is arguably the greatest American song cycle."
-Walter Simmons, Fanfare Magazine, May, 2013
John Cage 100 / Various artists (Wergo)
"Wergo’s handsomely produced box set was assembled for last year’s 2012 John Cage centenary. Fans will lap it up, and one hopes that curious newcomers will take the plunge and open their ears to this extraordinary, approachable music. Joshua Pierce’s 1970s album of the Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano still sounds definitive. Cage’s Table of Preparations is included in the booklet, listing in alarming detail the position, size and orientation of every bolt, washer and screw inserted in Pierce’s piano. Inevitably, you start to wonder if the bell-like sounds and echoes of gamelan music would come across differently if the screws were placed at random. Still, the wonder lies in hearing these tiny pieces packing an expressive punch out all proportion to their miniature scale."
-Graham Dickson, www.theartsdesk.com February 2, 2013, United Kingdom
"Almost the first thing you'll notice about Pierce's playing is the steady, calm yet totally confident command with which he paces and navigates through the intricacies of some of the composer's most engaging and enticing works for solo piano. "
"The result of this rich and knowing combination of aspects to Pierce's playing would still not be worthy of our attention if it were not for a certain spontaneity, a dedication to the aforementioned variety in the composer's pianism, a determination lightly to accentuate Cage's freshness. At times this is, of course, almost playful; at times earnest yet delighted; always full of vigor. Maybe Pierce is reflecting the closeness of much of Cage's work to dance. In the end, Pierce's accounts of all this music, in its various ways, are always focused, sonorous, inviting and full of life."
- Mark Sealey, Classical.Net ©2012...More of this review. click here
'...Two Pieces for Piano, a brooding keyboard meditation
seems to hover with Cage’s ghost in Pierce’s whispering tones...'
"In the 20 sections of Four Walls Pierce essays the austere soundscape that alternates with warm, supple, serene piano lines. Cage’s narrative, is in fact, a diatonic scenario of a family in crisis. Episodes of lingering silence and a scene in which tenor Robert White sings about “black nightingales” and “Sweet love/my throat is gurgling/the mystic mouth.” The bleakness is overrun by two “dance” interludes that are more than just propulsive, they have a raw musicality, or counter-musicality, and you can only imagine how figures, spontaneously appear in Cunningham’s choreography... The highlight on this set is the transcendent live performance by Pierce of Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano."
-Lewis Whittington, Concertonet.com - November 15, 2012...More of this review, click here.
'He is a big pianist but with a real heart and soul'
"Thursday night's performance features the renowned Pierce, who has worked with (Kirk)Trevor on seven recordings, the maestro estimated — and the pair have several more collaborations in the works. Trevor praised Pierce's "unusual" range. "He was very famous as a contemporary avant-garde pianist for a long time and yet was one of the best romantic pianists out there."
..."He is a big pianist but with a real heart and soul," Trevor added. "He has always been a collaborative partner with me. He likes for me to take the role of leading him to his best playing, meaning that we find tempos and interpretive elements together that show him at his best."
-Aarik Danielsen, Columbia Daily Tribune - July 1, 2012 ...To read all of this great review, click here.
“John Cage at 100: A Well-Rounded Tribute from Joshua Pierce - Joshua Pierce’s longtime advocacy of and affinity for John Cage’s piano music has resulted in numerous recordings… Here Pierce [is] fluid, flexible, and involved... Furthermore, the pianist benefits from a spacious hall ambience that allows the Gamelan-like timbres to fully resonate at any dynamic level… Cage acolytes will notice Pierce’s subtle yet noticeable degree of tempo adjustment and nuance in the large-scale Four Walls…along with Robert White’s delightfully emotive rendition of the unaccompanied vocal interlude. Pierce’s gutsy, incisive way with shorter dissonant works like Quest and both sets of Two Pieces point up their proximity to Cage’s teacher Schoenberg, and the short, pointillistic Piano Sextet (one of Cage’s few “traditional” chamber scores) reveals the composer’s sensitive and often underrated ear for conjuring fresh instrumental textures. MSR should be thanked for restoring this wide range of Cage’s music in such strong, committed performances in time for the composer’s 2012 centenary, while not forgetting to mention composer Eric Salzman’s informative and well-written booklet notes.”
- Jed Distler, Classics Today – September 2012
John Cage 2-CD set was featured on Q2 Music's (WQXR's online station for contemporary music) Album of the Week for August 27 - August 31, 2012.
"There are few pianists as equipped to tackle the polarizing music of John Cage as powerfully as Joshua Pierce...Pierce’s balance of careful technique and violent abandon throughout offer a profound and accessible portrait of the landscape-changing composer." - Read the entire review here
'Joshua Pierce is one of the most diversely accomplished living pianists...'
“Positively Spellbinding... a fine recording... In the Draeske, Aomori has ample opportunity to display his virtuosity and vivid assurance... Joshua Pierce is one of the most diversely accomplished living pianists... The performances by clarinetist Aomori, pianist Pierce and cellist Barrett [of the Beethoven] capture this exuberance unerringly... With a fine recording, this disk should provide inspiration to clarinetists and much enjoyable listening for the rest of us."
-Howard Smith, Music & Vision - April 2011
'All these performances are technically superb and musically satisfying'
"The Pierce-Aomori Duo has made
lovely disc of pieces for clarinet and piano...and with cellist Daniel Barrett, Beethoven's Clarinet Trio in E-flat, Op.11... The Beethoven Trio, which sounds like a masterpiece in this company, receives a wonderful performance, with Pierce providing forward motion with his carefully controlled accents. Aomori and Barrett play lyrically. All these performances are technically superb and musically satisfying. A recommended disc."
-Turok's Choice, Issue No.230 - March 2011
'beautifully played and recorded'
"MSR struck gold with this release... beautifully played and recorded performance[s]."
- Fanfare Magazine, May/June 2011
'performances are technically assured'
BBC Music, March 2011
'polished, enthusiastic in the extreme, and thoroughly virtuosic'
"...a very generous and appealing program from MSR... the performances throughout by clarinetist Hideaki Aomori, pianist Joshua Pierce, and cellist Daniel Barrett are polished, enthusiastic in the extreme, and thoroughly virtuosic when that's called for. Nor are the melting lyrical passages of Burgmüller and Mendelssohn slighted. With a fine recording captured in the Lefrak Concert Hall at SUNY, Queens, this disk should provide inspiration to clarinetists and much enjoyable listening for the rest of us."
- Passarella, Audiophile Audition, January 2011
... with extremely impressive solo playing'
"[an] intriguing piano concerto album... (Brahms, Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Opus 15) a darkly dramatic performance in a spacious acoustic...with extremely impressive solo playing... [and] a reading of the Strauss Burlesque which goes with a real swing."
- BBC Music, February 2011