Joshua Pierce plays Britten, Milhaud, Finzi, Strauss – Slovak State Chamber Orchestra – MSR

by | Jan 5, 2022 | CD+DVD | 0 comments

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BRITTEN: Young Apollo; MILHAUD: Le Carnaval D’Aix; FINZI: Ecloque; R. STRAUSS: Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme – Joshua Pierce, piano/ Slovak State Chamber Orchestra of Zilina/Slovak Radio Orchestra of Bratislava (Finzi)/ Kirk Trevor – MSR MS 1756 (7/6/21) 69:11 [] ****:

Recorded 2004-2005, these various dialogues for piano and orchestra span the years 1917-1942, and allow Joshua Pierce opportunities to demonstrate his versatility in divergent musical styles. The most “elusive” of the selections remains Britten’s allusion to the Keats poem “Hyperion” to pay homage to his romantic interest at the time of his departure from wartime England, Wulff Scherchen, son of the orchestra conductor Hermann Scherchen. Until Peter Donohoe recorded Young Apollo with Simon Rattle, the piece had languished in relative neglect. 

Young Apollo proceeds as a quest for light set in A Major. The piano writing wants to achieve radiance, supported by throbbing strings. The opening Allegro molto moves to Animato and then Maestoso in a concentrated, seven-minutes’ duration. The string piano filigree becomes repetitious, perhaps obsessive, as the layers of sound mount to apotheosis, the revelation of this new god of laughter, youth, beauty, and light. At the time of its composition, Britten’s urge to liberation appeared out of tune with the dark tenor of the war.

Darius Milhaud wrote a 1920 ballet for Leonide Massine, Salade, a kind of musical pastiche in the neo-Classic manner of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella (after Pergolesi). Along with another ballet, Le train bleu, Milhaud incorporated twelve numbers for piano and orchestra – a la Saint-Saens’ Le Carnaval des animaux – that often borrows characters from the commedia dell’arte. The Mediterranean locale of Aix is invaded by foreign, musical elements, like the rhumba, tango, maxixe, and Italian folk song to enjoy a kaleidoscopic array of brilliant colors. The piano has cadenzas and runs passages, but it no less swerves in the percussion, assisting music witty, vibrant, brash, and eminently imaginative. Two generations ago, the distinctive performance belonged to pianist Grant Johannesen.

Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) conceived his Eclogue (after the poet Virgil) in 1927, originally intending the slow music to serve as part of a projected piano concerto. Finzi revised the score twice, settling on its enhanced A-B-A structure in 1952. A calm dialogue between piano and strings of some nine minutes’ duration, it raises bucolic images of Finzi’s cherished English countryside. The music projects a rare simplicity in the way Dylan Thomas’ “Fern Hill” captures an eternal fancy that combines youth and the fateful knowledge of time in one, synoptic vision. 

Richard Strauss, much like Stravinsky, rebelled against his post-Romantic, Wagnerian, even pre-atonal, tendencies to produce music in a neo-Classic style around the time of WW I. He conceived incidental music for Moliere’s play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme in the Hofmannsthal, German version, Der Burger als Edelmann, that Strauss and Hofmannsthal reworked for a 1920 production that would utilize elements and characters from the 1912 opera Ariadne auf Naxos. For Richard Strauss, this ballet in antique style restricts its scoring to spare levels, winds in pairs and a small brass section, much in keeping with Baroque ensemble standards, except for a substantial keyboard part beyond a mere obbligato. The Suite is comprised of nine sections, with one part in particular, Entry and Dance of the Tailor (and his apprentices) as a direct parody of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. The opening Overture in three parts gives way to a Menuet, and then a brassy Fencing Master, whose uncredited trumpet part quite takes our attention. The Tailor has good realization by Frantisek Figura, especially since Willi Boskovsky in Vienna set the standard. Conductor Trevor keeps the musical momentum actively alert and fluid; and the accompanying booklet’s inclusion of the original concert program for Orchestra Zilina from 2004 offers the motivating document inspiring this fine, recorded collaboration.

–Gary Lemco 

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