I am listening to Beethoven again, after many years of disregard for his music, which I realized, was due to the so-called ‘German-style’ interpretation of Beethoven, with ponderous tempos and overstated dynamic contrast. This past spring, something clicked when I heard the Moonlight Sonata performed by Joshua Pierce – the Kirnberger temperament helped a lot, but its is through Joshua’s interpretation that I was able to rediscover Beethoven – I am now enjoying Joshua Pierce’s newly-released triple CD set of Beethoven’s five piano concertos, performed by the Slovak State Philharmonic. This CD is Pierce’s fifth project on the MSR Classics label.

How does Joshua Pierce play Beethoven? How is it different? What’s magical about it? Is it the emphasis on rhythmic groupings, creating timbre with rhythms, or the utter lack of exaggeration, the fluidity, the simplicity, even? Beethoven is the first romantic, but what is the true meaning of ‘romantic’? Some consider romanticism as a synonym of excess, and I sat with Josh at the Starbucks trying to nail the definition of ‘romantic’. While I deplored the overuse of the word romantic as in ‘a romantic dinner’, we agreed that the true-to-form definition is a style focused on self-expression. Self-expression, as in the individual versus society and the limitations it entails, does not necessarily mean unbridled passion. This special quality of balanced self-expression is what makes Joshua’s interpretation unique, in its unpretentious but dazzling clarity. No exaggeration here, no excessive rubato or aggressive dynamics. It makes Beethoven’s music come through exactly as it did historically, somewhere between Mozart and Schubert.

And the momentum is, as this major recording is being released on MSR Classics, coming up this fall, the American Festival of Microtonal Music is also releasing a Joshua Pierce piano album of works by Alan Hovhanes, Robert Bonotto, Ivan Wyschnegradsky, Roland Moser, Maurice Ohana, and John Cage’s Daughters of the Lonesome Isle, a virtuosic work for prepared piano, plus pieces for two pianos by Charles Ives and Stepan Konicek performed by Pierce and Dorothy Jonas, his collaborator of 20 years.

I should be noted that Joshua Pierce has worked closely with David Tudor in interpreting John Cage’s music, extrapolating from score grids of possibilities, throwing coins to obtain the I Ching hexagrams linked to the particular tones that would constitute that day’s iteration of the piece. Josh said that this unique training in John Cage’s music has improved the way he interprets any other music… In this world of hyper-specialization – even in the arts – it is refreshing to see how playing both classical and avant-garde repertoire can lead to a higher level of sophistication in one’s musical approach.

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