Joshua Pierce in Concert – Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Rhapsody; Respighi, Casella – MSR

by | Apr 24, 2024 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

RACHMANINOFF: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43; RESPIGHI: Toccata for Piano and Orchestra; CASELLA: Partita for Piano and Orchestra – Joshua Pierce, piano/ RTV Slovenia Symphony Orchestra/ Anton Nanüt – MSR Classics MS 1839 (72:25) (10/30/23) [Distr. by Albany] *****:

Pianist Joshua Pierce enjoys a repute as a prolific concert and recording artist, his having studied with Arthur Loesser, Victor Babin, Robert Goldsand and Dorothy Taubman, as well as having attended classes led by prominent composers, like Henry Cowell, Walter Piston, and John Cage. The present album, recorded 9-11 April 1991, features the conductor Anton Nanüt (1932-2017), who founded the RTV Symphony Orchestra in Ljubljana, Slovenia. This disc capitalizes on what it touts as “the Italian connection,” given that, in spite of stylistic differences, the works derive their impetus from Italian instrumental forms and personalities, like Rossini and Paganini.

The program opens with Alfredo Casella’s 1925 Partita for Piano and Orchestra, a work clearly wrought in the neo-Classical style in debt to Stravinsky and to some degree, Bela Bartók. It premiered in New York City under Willem Mengelberg and the composer at the keyboard. The predominance of a woodwind quartet defines much of the brilliant, acerbic, and aggressive texture of the first movement, Sinfonia, that alternates the modes of C.  Aspects of the concerto grosso competition between rival instrumental masses work their way throughout what evolves as a highly motivic sonata form.  Although at moments busily active in a moto perpetuo impulse, the music relents enough to provide some repose, Tranquillamente, dolce, molto espressivo. But the major mood is one of a bustling, flippant virtuosity of expression, antique and antic in spirit.

The second movement, Passacaglia is set in E minor, opening with a plaintive, low theme in the strings that evolves into a set of 12 variations and coda. The required repeats beckon some heavy tread and martial rhythm in the strings before the piano enters in Variation 5. Once Pierce appears, the colors change into rich, high-register arpeggios and agogic shifts in the meter. The textures soon alter as well, with solo keyboard, a rustic bagpipe sonority, a slow section marked Lento molto e misterioso, a siciliano in 6/8, and an ornamental chorale. The work consistently highlights Casella’s deft sense of orchestral and keyboard color diversity, especially in strings, horn, winds, and timpani. The low, lugubrious motif returns prior to the fermata, leaving us in a gloom that trumpets and nervous energy, the Burlesca last movement, dispels. This rondo moves in the style of a muscular tarantella, that echoes Rossini’s sense of broad humor and elastic energy. The piano runs hint several times at the influence of Shostakovich, a real tour de force in glissando effects and staccato punctuation. A bit of counterpoint moves us along, as if Casella were imitating the Brahms gambit in his D Minor Concerto. The martial elements boasts an optimism and audacity that again bespeak Casella’s orchestral confidence. A section, Calmato e tranquillo, introduces a period of relative hiatus from the kaleidoscope of colors, but the effect of brilliance, close to Stravinsky’s Petrushka, once more asserts itself, much animato, leading to a militant pose, interrupted momentarily by Pierce’s solo, and then a Prestissimo rush to judgment.  

The pungent Toccata for Piano and Orchestra (1928) of Ottorino Respighi benefits from the composer’s mix of Italian and Russian pedagogy.  In two, unbroken sections, the piece opens in a dark mode of D, capitalizing on low strings and high piano runs, all in a neo-Classic style in debt to Stravinsky and the French and Italian Baroque, at once, a la Pulcinella. Pierce injects some recitative elements and cantabile ornamented by strings and winds. The Andante that ensues, in G minor, expresses some virile passion, and has Pierce execute some thick, chordal passages in passing dissonances. Respighi reintroduces his opening motif in the original D minor, moving lyrically by way of Pierce to the second section, marked Andante lento. The opening has a Lisztian, almost cembalom sonority, highly expressive, the sweet calm before the storm. Respighi has been cautiously, colorfully, setting us up for the real toccata impetus, running 16ths in triple time, all led by a fervid Joshua Pierce. A brief scherzo intrudes with Pierce and orchestra in high register banter that leads to a knotty, solo cadenza soon joined by the active string and woodwind filigree. A real romp ensues, manipulating the main theme, along with Pierce’s repeated notes so that the whole will land optimistically in the major mode. 

Rachmaninoff’s 1934 Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini requires little background rhetoric, given its immense popularity. The use of the Paganini 24th Caprice and especially its inversion at the 18th variation have become standard commentary. Suffice it to say that this collaboration between Pierce and Nanüt has to rank as among the fleetest of renditions, though its pure speed does not dilute the effect of the slower sections, while the more presto and vivo episodes assume a blazing virtuosity. One might claim that the velocity of execution diminishes, in a blaze of color, the dire quality of the (ubiquitous) Dies Irae in the course of the evolving, twenty-four variations. Variation 12, in particular, assumes a vibrant color, a minuet that marks a series of amorous and alternately martial contemplations. Pierce’s solo cadenza at Variation 15 proves a torrent of controlled brio. Nanüt’s responsive ensemble basks in the complementary timbres that ultimately lead to the ever-quoted Variation 18, Andante cantabile.  The entire third section, consisting of six highly urgent variants, moves like heat lightning, mostly in Paganini’s original A minor, and steadily ascending to a colossal restatement of Dies Irae that has lost much of its sting. Whew!

A fine restoration of familiar and rare repertory, well worth an audition, if not several.

—Gary Lemco

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Album Cover for Joshua Pierce in Concert, Rachmaninoff Paganini


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