Having audited Mr. Pierce in the music of Liszt prior (MS 1148), I was already familiar with his digital credentials. Pierce has a big, extroverted technique and temperament, and he likes to throw notes around in the grand manner, a la Liszt style. The E-flat Concerto we know as No. 1 (1855) found its way to my youthful ears in two ways: the 78s of Walter Gieseking and Sir Henry Wood, and the thriller film Above Suspicion with Fred MacMurray, Joan Crawford, and an elegantly villainous Basil Rathbone. “He knew his Liszt!” says Rathbone of the murderer of a Nazi official. The Pierce E-flat is bombastic, intimate, and heroic in turn, a nice collaboration all around. I particularly like Freeman’s work in the A Major Concerto, with its labyrinthine passages and orchestral diableries in imitation of Weber’s Konzertstueck, Op. 79. The A Major Concerto (1857) first charmed me under the sure-fire hands of Robert Casadesus and George Szell. Lovely viola work in this Freeman rendition, especially just before the glittering arpeggios prior to the coda with its pomp and cymbals.
The E-flat Concerto now called No. 3 (c. 1847) was revived by pianist and musiclogist Jay Rosenblatt. The concerto favors the Lisztian rhetoric certainly; we can hear aspects of the Liebestraum studies as well as ungainly structures that find their way into the Malediction for Piano and Orchestra. Some interesting syncopations take us to foreign keys, like a quasi-march in E-flat Minor. The piece might have more in common with the composer’s tone poems than with conventional structure. A theme and variations in G-flat Major provides an extended moment of repose; and when mixed with the orchestra, it sounds like a Chopinesque score for a tearjerker with Lana Turner directed by Douglas Sirk. The music picks up again in competing duple and triple meters, followd by the dervish-effect strings which might easily have been penned by Cesar Franck or Henry Litolff. The drum beats of the coda are close cousins of those in Richard Strauss’s Burleske. If the finale has a touch of Mendelssohn pointing to Saint-Saens, it’s a healthy frivolity. Pierce turns on his afterburner fireworks for the Totentanz (in D Minor), whose three cadenzas provide him plenty of characterization. Glissando effects abound, as does chromatic filigree of very knotty order. The pungency of the orchestral line directly relates to Moussorgsky’s later concept for A Night on Bare Mountain. Some of Liszt’s effects are clearly water-impulses, harbingers of Ravel’s Jeux d’eau and the composer’s own Villa d’Este studies. Wonderful stretti for the fugato Fifth Variation that breaks into Herculean major modality. While the Michelangeli/Kubelik version of this brilliant, Promethean piece remains my preference, Pierce and Freeman do no disservice to any Lisztian’s collection.
— Gary Lemco