Joshua Pierce: Bravura = ADDINSELL: Warsaw Concerto; GERSHWIN: Variations on “I Got Rhythm”; CHOPIN: Variations on Mozart’s “La Ci Darem la mano,” Op. 2; SAINT-SAENS: Caprice-Valse “Wedding Cake,” Op. 76; TUROK: Ragtime Caprice, Op. 55; WEBER (arr. LISZT): Polonaise Brillante, Op. 72; ELLINGTON: New World A-Comin’; LITOLFF: Scherzo from Concerto Symphonique No. 4 in D minor, Op. 102 – Joshua Pierce, piano/ Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/ Kirk Trevor – MSR MS 1640, 74:35 (10/24/19) [Distr. by Albany] ****:
A debonair sense of flair and stylistic versatility mark this (rec. 2000-2007) compilation of concerted works performed by Joshua Pierce, the once-pupil of luminaries Victor Babin, Arthur Loesser, and Robert Goldsand. The essential ingredient of this “bravura” tour would be dexterous fun, applied with brilliant digital aplomb by Pierce in a dazzling array of musical styles, from Polish dances to boogie-woogie.
I must recall that the first work, Richard Addinsell’s 1941 Warsaw Concerto takes me back to a shellac rendition with Leo Litwin (1909-1987), who performed as a resident pianist for the Boston Pops. Pierce and conductor Trevor allot the music its requisite “Hollywood treatment,” a series of Technicolor gestures by way of Rachmaninoff. The eight-minute work combines a sweeping series of romantic episodes that find a sense of dramatic closure.
Gershwin’s 1934 I Got Rhythm Variations utilizes a four-note motif not so distant from Beethoven’s “fate” idea, a relation noted by Ralph Ellison in his epic Invisible Man. The work, dedicated to brother Ira, who collaborated on the musical Girl Crazy, exploits a series of styles, from waltz to polytonal Oriental, and bluesy jazz. The music splashes and dances and rings with an authentic feel for Americana.
Chopin’s 1829 Variations on Mozart’s ‘La Ci Darem la mano’ served as his Parisian calling card, inciting Schumann to demand, “Hats off, gentlemen; a genius!” Structured as an introduction, five variants, and finale, the piece demands every sort of wrist and finger articulation from Pierce, who still manages a flourish or two of his own. The silken transitions of tempo and accent testify to a happy concord between Pierce and conductor Trevor. The occasional color from the woodwinds adds a selective spice to the boldness of the keyboard part, which ends with a manic polonaise.
The most “personal” moment for this reviewer occurs in the Ragtime Caprice, Op. 65 (1977) of Paul Turok (1929-2012), whom I knew from my days sharing the microphone for WQXR’s “First Hearing.” A cleverly wrought piece that exploits the Gershwin, honky-tonk, blues, ragtime, stride, and Tin Pan Alley traditions, the work meant to be recorded by Joshua Pierce. There pass by us hints of “You Made Me Love You” and various, casual references to Scott Joplin riffs. The orchestral part, too, basks in delightful color elements in percussion and brass. If the melos occasionally rings of “Hey, Big Spender” or Gershwin’s iconic Rhapsody, don’t be too surprised.
I once described the Duke Ellington (1899-1974) ethos as “quietly revolutionary.” New World A-Comin (1945) has been arranged by Maurice Peress. Through-composed, the piece uses a three-note motif that permeates the whole. The trombone offers an F minor episode called “Gut bucket” that swings with a sarcastic, Cab Calloway devil-may-care. The build-up becomes typically “symphonic” in the Ellington style: clarinet cadenza, solo piano in blues riffs, grand tutti, another improvised keyboard solo in which the “revolution” lies in its unique harmonies, and a splashy finale that would have delighted in a version with Levant and Kostelanetz.
The three remaining Bravura “staples” – from Saint-Saens, Weber and Litolff – engage the truly acrobatic aspects of Pierce’s playing. The 1885 Wedding Cake of Saint-Saens first caught my fancy in its realization by Grant Johannesen. Its combination of deft rhythms and genuine melodic flair remains intact in this collaboration from Pierce and Trevor. The classic Litolff Scherzo (1852) has well outlived its original context, the Concerto, Op. 102. The moto perpetuo in 6/8 continues to dazzle the ear with its glittery battle with strings, piccolo, and triangle and the sheer speed of key changes. The last pages – marked impetuoso – sweeps us away yet once more. Liszt in 1851 restructured the Carl Maria von Weber Polonaise, Op. 72 for his personal use with orchestra, as he had Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy. Glittering roulades and sweeping gestures let Pierce stun and delight us before he embarks on the eminently jaunty polonaise proper. A real whirlwind piece, it never ceases to fly across our musical imagination as the very embodiment of keyboard spectacle.