June 30, 2016


Mendelssohn: Piano Concerto in A minor; Haydn: Piano Concerto No. 11; Bach: Harpsichord Concerto No. 5, BWV 1056. Joshua Pierce, piano; Slovak National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kirk Trevor. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Peter Lieuwen: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (2012); Romance for Violin, Cello and Piano (1994/2010); Vivace for String Orchestra (2010); Concerto for Piano, Marimba and Orchestra (2008). Nicholas Jones, cello; Andrzej Grabiec, violin, with Misha Quint, cello, and Carlo Alessandro Lapegna, piano; Leonel Morales, piano, with Jesus Morales, marimba; Slovak National Symphony Orchestra and Texas Music Festival Orchestra conducted by Franz Anton Krager. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Nedudim. Fifth House Ensemble and Baladino. Cedille. $12.

     A beautifully played juxtaposition of keyboard works from three different time periods, Joshua Pierce’s latest MSR Classics recording makes up through verve and musicianship what it lacks in authenticity. None of the three composers on the CD wrote for a piano that was anything like the one Pierce plays: modern concert grands had not been developed when 13-year-old Felix Mendelssohn produced his remarkably mature Piano Concerto in A minor, much less when Haydn and Bach created the works heard here. Pierce’s performances are pretty much the antithesis of historically accurate: he uses the resources of a fine modern piano very well, and is a sufficiently sensitive performer to avoid, to the extent possible, having the instrument overshadow the accompaniment provided by the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kirk Trevor. But there is only so much that Pierce can do about this: the warmth and emotional involvement of the second movement of Haydn’s concerto, for example, are thoroughly winning – and thoroughly out of character. But listeners willing to suspend any focus they may usually have on historically informed performance practices will be lured into this recording immediately and swept away by it throughout. The Mendelssohn concerto is the highlight here. Very little known, it was created before the two numbered Mendelssohn piano concertos and is certainly a derivative work, with hints of Haydn and a pronounced similarity to Hummel. In some ways it looks ahead, as in the dramatic solo entrance in the first movement and the tying-together of the slow movement and finale. In other ways it is clearly Mendelssohnian, as in the gracefulness of the main slow-movement theme. And in the finale, the best of the three movements, the concerto is highly virtuosic, rhythmically strong and chromatically interesting, with propulsive forward motion that carries right through to the minor-key conclusion. The concerto is actually longer than the two numbered ones (although not as long as the CD states: the first movement’s length is amusingly and incorrectly given, in two places, as “45:46”). This piece may not have quite enough to say to justify its length, but it offers more than sufficient reason to hear it on occasion; and both Pierce and Trevor give the work considerable respect, refusing to dismiss it as mere juvenilia (it was, after all, written at the same time as some of the very fine string symphonies). The CD is well worth owning for this work alone. But the mixing together of early Romanticism with Haydn’s Classical poise and Bach’s Baroque ornamentation makes the recording even more interesting. Haydn’s concerto was written for harpsichord or early fortepiano, and the work tilts too far in balance toward a soloist using a modern piano, but the brightness and humor of the piece, especially its Hungarian-flavored finale, come through very well here. Bach’s concerto is more problematic. This F minor work is very definitely intended for harpsichord – it consists of movements carefully arranged by Bach from earlier pieces – and neither the comparative heaviness of the first movement nor the warmth of the piano against the pizzicato strings in the second really fits the music. The concluding Presto badly needs the penetrating brightness of plucked harpsichord strings for full effect; even Pierce’s fine pacing cannot make up for this lack. Nevertheless, this disc as a whole is a very enjoyable one, and the Mendelssohn concerto is a real find.

     The mixing is not of stylistic periods but of musical styles themselves in another MSR Classics release, this one featuring world premiรจre recordings of concertos and other works by Peter Lieuwen (born 1953). Like many other contemporary composers, Lieuwen produces works in classical forms, or at least with classical titles, but packs them with music heavily influenced by jazz and non-Western idioms. The result, at its best, is an intriguing blend; when less successful, it is something of an oil-and-water colloidal suspension in which it can be difficult for the ear to be sure which way the composer is leading it. The first movement of the two-movement Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, for instance, has the cello indulging in free flights of fancy while the accompaniment chugs along in mostly uninspired fashion, while the second movement contrasts a tonal but largely tuneless first section with a brighter second one. Romance for Violin, Cello and Piano is a meandering fantasia in which the instruments go in their own directions rather than engage in more-traditional chamber-music discussion. Here too there is a very repetitive underlying element, in the piano; and there is similar “chugging” repetition in Vivace – these foundational ostinato rhythms do ground the pieces, but the constant drumbeat becomes wearing. Thankfully, there is less of this approach in Concerto for Piano, Marimba and Orchestra, the most successful work here, which combines and contrasts the two percussion soloists in a way that makes it clear that the piano really is a percussion instrument. Although the slow second movement meanders, the concerto’s outer movements, including a finale with a distinct Latin cast, are sonically attractive and involving, and very well played – as is all the music here. The CD as a whole is a (+++) recording: it has more high points than low, but leaves the impression that Lieuwen’s music is best heard a little at a time rather than in larger chunks.

     Another (+++) CD takes the notion of mixing things up even further – so much further that it is difficult to figure out what audience the performers are reaching for. This is a Cedille recording called Nedudim; the title is Hebrew for “wanderings.” This is a sort of combinatorial jam session of two groups whose members apparently like each other and each other’s style enough to want to perform together, but whose topics and approaches are so very different that their combination never seems to come together in any meaningful way. One group, Chicago-based Fifth House Ensemble, favors traditional Western orchestral instruments that it deploys in contemporary ways to produce modern forms of chamber music. The other ensemble, Israel-based Baladino, uses Asian and North African instruments such as the oud, shofar and duduk in the service of folk music largely from Sephardic and Middle Eastern roots. There is everything here from Indian raga to drone strings, from jazz flute to folk singing, from American bluegrass to Persian and Turkish influences. The 11 tracks are clearly very personal reflections of the musicians’ concerns and interests, as the heartfelt performances confirm. There is an improvisational feel to the whole enterprise – the members of Baladino are in fact improvisation-oriented – but the highly personal sort of enthusiasm underlying the project never quite comes through to listeners uninvolved with creating the CD. A couple of traditional Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) songs, a Dan Visconti piece in which classically trained musicians are supposed to cut loose into jazz and folk territory, a work including American blues guitar within Greek modal writing, a love song from the U.S. Civil War – there are a lot of disparate elements and distinct influences here, with the result that Nedudim lives up to its title without ever quite indicating why an audience that is not part of the collaborative project should want to go along on the groups’ stylistic and geographical travels. Listeners would be well advised to sample bits of several individual tracks here to decide whether the totality of the project is likely to strike enough of a chord with them to become something with which they would like to live – or whether, like many improvisations, the CD captures a particular moment in time but lacks any significant staying power.

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