"A fine tribute to Pierce’s pianism with considerable élan and technique to spare"
While professed Russophiles argue back and forth about the various merits of Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Ravel and Stokowski, music lovers in general can get a hefty and very welcome dose of Russian music for piano and orchestra on a newly and nicely remastered MSR Classics two-CD set of six concertos played, with considerable élan and technique to spare, by Joshua Pierce. The concertos range from the extremely well-known to the not-very-understandably neglected. The two by Tchaikovsky heard here are at the poles: everyone knows No. 1 and it sometimes seems that everyone plays it, while the one-movement No. 3 is rarely heard. Pierce probes the lyricism as well as the dynamism of both works, and conductor Paul Freeman makes a first-rate partner, helping sustain interest in No. 1 after the grand (and grandiose) first movement gives way to the gentleness of the Andantino semplice, then pulling out all the stops for a fiery finale. The single-movement No. 3 shares some elements of the first movement of No. 1 in its frequent tempo and mood changes, and Pierce and Freeman handle them in a similar and highly convincing way. The short (13-minute) and infrequently heard (at least outside Russia) concerto by, yes, Rimsky-Korsakov, is a fascinating foil for the two Tchaikovsky concertos. It is a lyrical, good-humored work with careful orchestration and elegantly concise expression – and Kirk Trevor, who conducts only this concerto among the six in this release, ably abets Pierce’s bright and forthright approach. The set’s second CD focuses on the 20th century rather than the 19th, and is every bit as winning. The orchestration of Khachaturian’s concerto is particularly attractive (although Freeman does not use the musical saw for which the composer called in the Andante). This is a vivid reading that, to its credit, pays particularly close attention to Khachaturian’s exotic themes and strong rhythms. Shostakovich’s Second Concerto is upbeat, too, unlike most of the composer’s non-theatrical music, and it is also rather superficial, albeit in a pleasing and involving way. The enthusiastic outer movements, whose difficult passages appear to give Pierce no trouble at all, contrast nicely with the only slightly melancholic Andante. Prokofiev’s First is sterner, darker stuff, a strong contrast with the Shostakovich, with very speedy outer movements and a central Andante assai whose beauty has a rather sinister tinge to it. This thoroughly engaging recording makes both a fine tribute to Pierce’s pianism and a memorable memorial to Freeman (1936-2015), who shows himself in these concertos to be a full and able partner for Pierce – two Americans whose sensitivity to and understanding of this Russian repertoire is as convincing as it is involving.
- Mark J. Estren, Infodad.com, May 2016
"A vigorous and emotionally connected performance"
“...especially natural and well-spaced recorded sound. Joshua Pierce is an American pianist with stellar academic credits (Cleveland Institute, Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music, and Columbia)... Pierce has a fine sense for the energy and slyness of the outer movements, and finds great poignancy in the exquisite adagio. Pierce's Mendelssohn is an engaging presentation of this delightful music. Trevor and the Slovak National contribute an alert, colorful accompaniment. In the Bach, Pierce and Trevor certainly deliver a vigorous and emotionally connected performance... this is a solid outing.”
- Peter Burwasser, Fanfare [November/December 2016]
"...With a beauty that took my breath away"
“In the Haydn, the pianist is presented as someone with a deft touch... In the second movement the pianist impressed with his fine cantabile line, good pacing and a real sense of the melody...played with flair, polish and a great lightness of touch.
"In the Mendelssohn, When the pianist comes in, his entrance is grand, yet restrained. With many skilfully executed florid runs and arpeggios, Pierce shows what a fine legato touch he has... The second movement has a really lovely tutti opening. When the piano comes in, the whole style changes to recitativo over the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra's suspended strings, with a beauty that took my breath away... The lovely dance-like last movement requires deftness and brilliance of playing rather than macho bravura, and again here it is delivered with panache."
"The Bach is beautifully played, and the sense of melodic line and almost jaunty rhythms were never overdone. Pierce's piano dynamic is breathtaking in its beauty and sweetness, but never at the expense of clarity. [In the second movement, Pierce's] pace, cantabile line and the great pizzicato strings background truly transported me to heaven."
All in all, this is a fine disc and will be an enjoyable addition to anyone's collection.”
- Geoff Pearce, Music & Vision, September 2016
"Joshua Pierce is a supreme example of a top-flight concert pianist who's chosen to take “the road less traveled,” and he's done well with it"
I admire New York City native Joshua Pierce because (a) he's so very talented at communicating the essence of a work of music to us with boldness and conviction, and (b) he's a supreme example of a top-flight concert pianist who's chosen to take “the road less traveled,” and he's done well with it. The breadth of his repertoire over the past several decades has been immense, and he has more than 60 albums to his credit. For whatever reason, he has preferred a life as a world traveler instead of just hitting the double-handful of big time concert halls in North America and Western Europe. Maybe he has chosen worldwide mobility over instant acclaim because he acquired, earlier in his career, the reputation of being a “John Cage specialist” (and Cage, as we know, can be a hard rap to beat!)
At any rate, Pierce, with the collaboration of longtime partner-in-crime Kirk Trevor at the podium of the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra, further enhances his reputation as an artist of the broadest sympathies. I'd mostly thought of him as an explorer in search of the red meat of the romantic and modern repertoire, so it's refreshing to discover how scintillatingly precise, how right-on the-money he can be in such 18th century items as Bach's Concerto in F minor, BWV1056 and Haydn's Concerto No. 11 in D major. Pierce's fresh new accounts of these familiar standards are the bookends to a program that includes Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto in A minor (1822), a somewhat neglected work that is certain to acquire new friends with this performance.
The Haydn is taken with bracing but not breakneck tempi, allowing the galante elements in the music and the delicious interplay between soloist and orchestra plenty of opportunity to be enjoyed. The noble arioso in the Adagio is particularly notable for its gracious expression. That makes the strongest contrast imaginable with the spirited finale, billed as Rondo all’Ungarese (Hungarian Rondo) but actually based on an authentic Bosnian / Dalmatian folk dance. This rousing finale builds to an exciting climax with antiphonal effects between soloist and orchestra. At one point, the pianist makes a stunning shift in registration that is somewhat harder to do on the piano than when this concerto is played in the alternate version for a two-manual harpsichord.
- Phil Muse, Audio Video Club of Atlanta, May 2016
"A Treasure Trove Of The Best Of Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofieff, Shostakovich and Khachaturian"
What a find this is! Joshua Pierce recorded five of the six Russian piano concertos in this 2-CD set in Eastern Europe between 1988 and 1991, and they appeared without much fanfare on such obscure labels as Carlton Classics and Phoenix USA. Their reissue in superb remasterings on MSR gives them a fair chance to be heard by a wider audience. This is a treasure trove of the best of Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Khachaturian. What more do you want: egg in your vodka?
From the opening of the ever-popular Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor by Tchaikovsky, we feel we are in for an exalted musical experience as both Pierce and conductor Paul Freeman, at the podium of the RTV Symphony Orchestra of Slovenia, are right on the money with its smartly-paced excitement. They handle this supremely lyrical work as if it were second nature, but without taking it for granted. Pierce’s solid pianism includes a beautiful tone that stays amazingly limpid throughout the work’s wide dynamic range.
This performance unflaggingly holds our interest, so the work doesn’t suffer, as it often does, from a slackening of intensity when the opening Allegro gives way to the lovely Andantino. The finale is as overwhelmingly triumphant as you’ve ever heard it. Really, this account is a revelation. The same goes for Tchaikovsky’s too-seldom heard Concerto No. 3 in E-flat major. The composer did not live to complete the work in three movements as planned, and it is often heard, as here, in its only finished movement, an Alllegro brillante exhibiting big block chords, octaves and scale runs in the piano part. An exuberant main theme is contrasted by a lovely slow melody. Frequent tempo changes keep both Pierce and Freeman on their toes.
Rimsky-Korsakov’s Piano Concerto in C-sharp minor is surprisingly under-valued today, at least outside of Russia. With the able assistance of Kirk Trevor and the Slovak National Symphony, Pierce makes us wonder all the more at its neglect, for it is as lovely in its folk-like lyricism as it is economic in form. Good humor and musicality prevail in a work in which Pierce clearly relishes its vivacity and bravura passages. A very satisfying gem in just 13 minutes.
CD2, in which Joshua Pierce is partnered by Freeman at the podium of the Berlin Radio Symphony on Tracks 1-3 and the RTV Symphony-Slovenia on 4-10, continues the excitement in ways that reveal the 20th century concertos of Prokofiev, Khachaturian and Shostakovich to be more a continuation than a break with the Russian romantic tradition. From its opening Allegro, we feel the visceral intensity of Khachaturian’s Concerto in D-flat major (1936) in a three note signature that will be the genesis of every theme we hear in this movement. In the Andante, this performance eschews the musical saw which the composer originally intended, instead using conventional instruments played un-conventionally to convey its exotic, dreamlike beauty (Kudos for the tender melody played by the bass clarinet). Pierce takes the driving, bouncy rhythms in a compelling and utterly brilliant finale with deceptive ease.
In a mood of self-deprecation, Dmitri Shostakovich may have hurt the popularity of his Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major when he described it as having “no redeeming artistic merit.” It is really a very attractive work, more cheerful than we usually expect of this composer. The outer movements are bouncy (I envisioned the Moscow Circus) and they require the pianist to frequently play octaves and unisons in fast passages. The slow movement is subdued, warm, and tinged with melancholy. Pierce takes this moment for all it is worth.
Finally, we have Sergei Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 1 in D-flat major (1912), which served as an unmistakable calling card for the recent conservatory graduate. The opening theme emerges out of a whirling cyclone of notes, which is heard again at the work’s conclusion, a scherzo that turns out to be the finale. The tempi in these outer movements are of two kinds: fast and faster. The slow movement is dark, gloriously so, with an abysmal climax. Pierce and Freeman make it a thing of sinister beauty.
We’ve noted Joshua Pierce’s dynamic artistry in numerous places in the course of this review. His high-profile intensity in the fast, trenchant, and stunningly rhythmical passages speaks for itself, and he is just as keenly attuned to the warm, deeply felt moments in the slow movements of all these works. Now, let’s talk for a moment about the conductor who strides step-for-step with him in most of these performances. Paul Freeman, like Pierce, was a figure who has been under-recognized by the critical and musical establishment in the U.S. His death last July 21st received scant attention from the media. Being an African-American, he must have realized early-on that he had little chance of landing an appointment as music director with a major orchestra, and so he went international on a grand scale. In a career of more than forty years, he guest-conducted more than 100 orchestras around the globe and made some 200 recordings. Long before Perestroika, he was a welcome presence and a good-will ambassador when conducting orchestras in Russia and the Soviet Bloc. He will be missed.
- Phil Muse, Audio Club of Atlanta, January 2016
“Most of these performances were made from 1988 to 1991... MSR's remastering is excellent, offering much better sound now... Pierce plays with a lot of muscle and power... his interpretations more often than not strike you as imaginative and bold, often with insights that others lack... [Pierce's Tchaikovsky First] is definitely a strong effort, well phrased and interpretively sensitive to Tchaikovsky's tuneful and brilliant score, [In the finale] the drama and sweep of the music emerge with plenty of spirit... this is a fine Tchaikovsky First... [Pierce's account of the Third is] an interpretation brimming with spirit and color... The Rimsky-Korsakov C-sharp minor Concerto is a most valuable item here... Pierce seems fully at home with Rimsky's sometimes odd keyboard writing and ends up making an excellent case for this concerto. I actually favor his slightly faster tempos over Sviatoslav Richter's generally more moderate ones. This is not a major work, but those who like piano concertos in a rich Romantic vein will find it strongly to their liking. The Slovak National SO plays well under the direction of Kirk Trevor. he sound reproduction is quite fine throughout the disc. Excellent album notes by the venerable composer/writer Eric Salzman round out this worthwhile compilation of Russian concertos by MSR.”
- Robert Cummings, Classical Net, September 2016
“The most expeditious way to appreciate Vincent Persichetti: Legacy of Songs (MSR 1558) is, first, to read the poems on which the 41 songs are based, a task made easy by the inclusion of the texts in the album’s liner notes. Second, read along to the poems as the operatic baritone Lee Velta or the lyric soprano Sherry Overholt sing them... You’ll also be able to concentrate on Joshua Pierce’s pianism without losing the musically thematic ties that bind his playing to the words. Having reached this stage, appreciation will yield to enjoyment, and enjoyment will yield to a fuller appreciation of the puckish wisdom of Persichetti’s sources (Dickinson, Cummings, Teasdale, Frost, Joyce, Sandburg, and various Chinese and Japanese poets). Then there’s Hilaire Belloc’s Christocentic “Thou Child So Wise,” which transcends ppreciation and enjoyment altogether.”
- Arsenio Orteza, World Magazine, September 2016
Scintillating, Warm and Vigorous, Beautifully Paced
“Tchaikovsky’s First is scintillating and mentally alert; the Third is warm and vigorous... The Khachaturian is colorful. The first movement of Shostakovich’s Second is energetic, and is beautifully paced.”
- Estep, American Record Guide, July/August, 2016
"Solid and well defined... A document of Joshua Pierce’s impressive artistry"
"Joshua Pierce offers here a useful collection of piano concertos by Russian composers in commendable performances... [the Tchaikovsky] is a well-integrated, well-proportioned, and exciting reading that I find very satisfying... [In the Third Piano Concerto] Pierce’s brilliant, energetic playing gives consistent pleasure. Under Freeman’s direction, the Slovenian orchestra plays very well, with more spirit and incisiveness than the Philharmonia Orchestra under either Maazel or Pletnev’s conductor, Vladimir Fedoseyev. In the Pierce/Freeman rendition, this much-maligned concerto emerges as an exuberant, joyous work with pleasing thematic material, and one senses that these performers truly believe in the piece... I find Pierce’s conception of the [Khachaturian] persuasive and well executed... Piano tone is solid and well defined...The MSR booklet is to be praised for listing all of the numerous tempo markings in each movement of each work, rather than just the initial one, in a rare degree of exactitude... This release is recommended for the fine performances of the repertoire involved and a document of Joshua Pierce’s impressive artistry.”
- Daniel Morrison, Fanfare, May/June, 2016
Fine, Persuasive Pianism From A Well-known Source.
BACH: Keyboard Concerto No. 5 in F minor, BWV 1056; HA YDN: Piano Concerto in D, Hob. XVIII; MENDELSSOHN: Piano Concerto in A minor
Joshua Pierce, p./ Slovak National Sym. Orch./Kirk Trevor – MSR Classics 1496, 62:44 [ * * * * ]
It comes as no surprise to me that Joshua Pierce, who has already turned in a marvelous album of Mendelssohn’s two-piano concertos on MSR, should turn to a solo concerto outing. What is surprising is his choice here, the early (about 13 years old) A-minor concerto that has been nearly forgotten, written after the composer’s encounter with Hummel in Weimar. Of course, his later concertos aren’t exactly burning up the concert halls these days either, though most artists of substance have felt the need to contribute performances, most notably Murray Perahia in recent years. And none of them has the lasting, enduring “profundity” that other works like those of Mozart seem to contribute. Nevertheless, Mendelssohn’s pieces are always involving and engaging, as wedded pianistically to the page as that of any composer, ever. Pierce revels in this music, and you can feel the enjoyment.
The Bach No. 5 is well known, has been well-trodden, mostly on album compilations of all his keyboard concertos, and it is nice to hear it a varied program like this one. The Haydn, his most popular and greatest piano concerto, is probably the star of the show here, both in substance and in performance. Pierce really tears into this one, with an exuberance and élan that takes your breath away, making the case that it belongs in every way in the same class as Mozart’s concertos.
The Slovak SO plays very well... A fine release.
STEVEN RITTER, Audiophile Audition, September 16, 2016
“The music on this disc (Vincent Persichetti: Legacy of Songs MSR 1558) is first-rate and is unavailable elsewhere. For that reason I give the recording an enthusiastic recommendation....Joshua Pierce’s accompaniments are skillful and sensitive - virtually ideal renditions of the music... I strongly encourage readers to become acquainted with these songs.
- Myron Silberstein, Fanfare [May/June 2016]
PERSICHETTI: Legacy Of Songs / MSR 1558
Sherry Overholt, s; Lee Velta, bar; Joshua Pierce, p
Vincent Persichetti (1915-87) is probably best known for his instrumental music, but he also played a major role in defining the American art song. This is the second MSR release of his songs by Overholt and Pierce. The first was praised by Allen Gimbel (S/O 2013). The 41 songs of this volume, 11 of them unpublished, completes their survey. These are succinct miniatures; only three are longer than 2 minutes. All are settings of English texts or of texts translated into English. The vocal lines are well conceived, but the energy and imagination of these songs lies in their piano accompaniment. The singing is divided about evenly between the two singers. Both are worthy interpreters of these songs. Their diction is laudably clear. Overholt is a particularly good singer. Velta’s singing is stiffer and less refined. Pierce’s piano collaboration is first-rate. The notes supply scanty information about the composer but good information about the music. Texts are included.
R. Moore, American Record Guide, September/October 2016
VINCENT PERSICHETTI: LEGACY OF SONGS
Lee Velta, baritone; Sherry Overholt, soprano; Joshua Pierce, piano
The listening situation is somewhat the same, albeit for different reasons, when it comes to a new MSR Classics release of 41 songs by Vincent Persichetti (1915-1987). There are 24 songs here for baritone (Lee Velta) and 17 for soprano (Sherry Overholt), all of them with accompaniment on the piano (Joshua Pierce, who studied and collaborated with Persichetti); the two focuses are thus voice and piano. But they are also, in a more general sense, words and music – and the different ways those two forms of communication come through to an audience. These songs, all of them world première recordings, are in 10 groups, written to words from a wide variety of sources: Carl Sandburg, Sara Teasdale, e.e. cummings, James Joyce, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Hilaire Belloc and more. Most of the songs are quite short, with the song cycle A Net of Fireflies presenting 17 of them in less than 17 minutes. The settings are also quite varied: Persichetti shows considerable sensitivity to the lyrics and weaves differing piano lines according to the emotions expressed in the words and the sounds of the words themselves. As a practical matter, what this means is that the CD is difficult to listen to straight through, because so many elements of the music change so often. The song groupings are arranged chronologically, which is very helpful for following the development of Persichetti’s style from 1945 (the cummings songs) to 1970 (A Net of Fireflies). However, the arrangement means that Chinese songs are juxtaposed with English ones, Carl Sandburg’s plain-spokenness with James Joyce’s abstruse thinking, and so forth. There is something salutary in all this: hearing words and thoughts in a sequence that would not normally be one that readers or listeners would encounter stretches the ear and mind in intriguing ways. But to get the full flavor of the individual groupings and the songs within them, it is better to listen to the disc a bit at a time than to try to absorb it all at once. Velta and Overholt both handle the music skillfully and with careful control and considerable sensitivity, and Pierce’s pianism is exemplary throughout. Listening to 41 short songs by a still-underrated 20th-century American composer will not be an experience that will appeal to all listeners, but those willing to try it will find many pleasures here.
- Mark J. Estren, Infodad.com, June, 2016