Bach, Hindemith, Bloch.

Joshua Pierce (piano); Capella Istropolitana, Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra*/Kirk Trevor.
MSR Classics MS 1415 TT: 74:19.
UPC/EAN: 681585141526
MSR Classics

Solid. As far as repertoire goes, pianist Joshua Pierce’s has far more interest than, say, Martha Argerich’s. In addition to such mainstays as Beethoven and Tchaikovsky concerti, he has also recorded, sometimes with his duo partner Dorothy Jonas, neglected scores by Piston, Harris, Milhaud, Gould, and Martinů, among others. This disc hints at his wide range of interests with great programming, and there’s not a dud score on the disc.

People get into silly arguments about playing Bach’s keyboard works on harpsichord vs. the modern piano. Surely, they should concern themselves more on the quality of the performance. I’ve heard wonderful accounts on both. I love every single one of his keyboard concerti, and they rarely get played, for some reason. Pierce distinguishes himself by the clarity and vigor of his counterpoint, especially in the first movement. The second movement is okay, but it sits surrounded by others equally fine. I wish he sang more, through closer attention to shaping phrases. The movement takes the form of a passacaglia, but you could be beguiled into thinking it was a simple aria. The finale boogaloos like an energetic teen. It hands the performer plenty of opportunity for virtuoso display, and Pierce throws himself into it with relish. Overall, a lively account.

Hindemith initially titled his work Theme with Four Variations, so you know immediately its general form. He intended it for Leonid Massine but broke off the collaboration after he had seen and hated Massine’s choreography for the ballet Nobilissima Visione. A little later, George Balanchine, flush with money from Broadway and Hollywood, commissioned the work not as a ballet, but as something he, a good pianist, could play. He made it into a dance anyway, called The Four Temperaments, one of his early examples of removing ballet from story in favor of purely musical movement. The score has continued to sail under Balanchine’s flag. By the way, apparently, Balanchine never played it. Critics initially panned the work, but it has gradually been recognized as one of Hindemith’s great scores.

Don’t worry if you can’t follow how the variations manipulate the theme. Unlike most variation themes, Hindemith’s is much longer (over 5 1/2 minutes) than most variation themes and in three major sections. The first is a lovely flowing melody in the same family as the second movement of his Cello Concerto. The second flies with a burst of rapid notes and jerky syncopations. The third is in slow triple time (close to the Cello Concerto’s slow movement). Hindemith combines elements from each main part in various combinations, so it actually contains variations on itself. I had to use pencil and paper to work things out minus a score. Yet the music compels the listener so, that this under-the-hood stuff needn’t matter to anybody less obsessive than me. Variation I (Melancholic) also comes in three sections: declamatory (“O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I”), fast, and broadly moving. Variation II (“Sanguine,” ie, optimistic or cheerful) waltzes. Variation III (“Phlegmatic,” or calm) features stripped-down textures and slow tempi, although it’s slightly livelier in the second half. Variation IV (“Choleric”), at least a minute longer than the others, begins with angry declamation, moves to a quick section (perhaps the enraged energy of someone feeling wronged), and ends with brooding. I should say there’s no real program to any of this. Hindemith provides music of certain characters, and the score is more “pure music” than a description or story, nicely suited to Balanchine’s idea for an abstract ballet.

The music has a surprising number of recordings, many on obscure labels. The ones that Pierce competes with (of those I’ve heard) are Clara Haskil/Hindemith, Siegfried Mauser/Werner Andreas Albert, Howard Shelley/Yan Pascal Tortelier, and Idil Biret/Toshiyuki Shimada. Of the ones I haven’t heard, only Bruno Canino/Charles Mackerras intrigues me. Clara Haskil is outstanding, but Hindemith’s conducting is straight-ahead and merely capable. The sound is mono and muffled. As part of CPO’s cycle of Hindemith’s complete orchestral scores, Mauser and Albert give a moving reading, full of subtlety, as do Shelley and Tortelier (perhaps my favorite) on Chandos. I find Idil Biret choppy and brittle (not her biggest fan anyway). Among this group, Pierce comes across as good (certainly better than Biret), but not up to Haskil and Shelley. Kirk Trevor and the Capella Istropolitana have a fine chamber sound, but they don’t come up to either Albert or Tortelier and the recording sacrifices fullness for clarity. Overall, a very good performance.

The Swiss-American Ernest Bloch completed his Concerto Grosso No. 1 in 1925 (Concerto Grosso No. 2 came along in 1952). It has four movements: “Prelude,” “Dirge,” “Pastorale and Rustic Dances,” and “Fugue.” The first movement he wrote in 1924 for his composition students at the Cleveland Institute of Music as a teaching exercise, to show them how older forms could be revitalized. The other movements also run in his neo-classical vein. However, Bloch’s neo-classicism owes nothing to Stravinsky, Hindemith, or anybody else. I think the work a masterpiece, much more than a teaching exercise. It communicates instantly, like most of Bloch. I can’t understand the current neglect. Certainly, some of his pieces are weaker than others, but that’s true of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Mahler, Bartók, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and just about anybody else. Besides, there’s no point judging an artist on his worst, unless one wants to temporarily enjoy a false sense of superiority. For those willing to explore, Bloch’s catalogue will reward you many times over, in opera, concerto, and chamber music. The “Prelude” opens the work powerfully, while the “Dirge” laments in a stately way. The “Pastorale” borrows ideas from Bloch’s String Quartet No. 1; I suspect it’s his version of Swiss folk music. The mighty “Fugue,” free of the snarls that bedevil so many lesser fugues, takes big strides.

Unfortunately, this performance comes across as pallid and washed-out. Rhythmic details blur or have inappropriately soft edges. It’s not a patch on the vivid Howard Hanson recording on Mercury Living Presence. 

So we have essentially two good performances of interesting repertoire. I wish the Bloch were better.

S.G.S. (August 2022)