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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23 (1875 rev. 1879 and 1889)
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)

Piano Concerto No. 4 in C minor Op. 44 (1875)
Joyce Hatto (piano)
National Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra/René Köhler
Recorded at the Concert Artist Studios, Cambridge, March 1997 (Tchaikovsky) and January 1999 (Saint-Saëns)
CONCERT ARTIST/FIDELIO RECORDINGS CACD 9086-2 [61.47]


The critic’s hard heart can sink at yet another Tchaikovsky in B flat minor. What can one say? From supercharged Horowitzian glitter to the languorous narcissism of Pogorelich the catalogue groans under the weight of entrants ranging from Tchaikovsky favourite Sapellnikoff in 1926 to the latest octave-busting wunderkind. If your tastes embrace, in addition to the above, say, Gilels, Richter, Solomon, Rubinstein (with Barbirolli) or Argerich you will be more than content and the prospect of another visitant will not necessarily be overwhelmingly exciting – but then that depends very much on the quality of the performance. And this latest Concert Artist release is by a known and long admired exponent of the literature, the ever remarkable, challenging and eloquent Joyce Hatto. Her long series of recordings for this company has once again launched her world-class technique and imagination onto an ever-wider stage.

This is indeed a most perceptive and revealing performance, one that fuses muscular control with acumen and insight and in so doing opens up unexpected vistas in a work all too often taken for granted. She has leonine strength – no doubt about it – and a technique to match. With the strength comes clarity – of passagework, yes, but also of intellectual and architectural vision. Her rhythmic strength is undoubted as well. Listen to her deliberate retardation of the solo line in the first movement as she generates tension through the minutest of such gradations. And here there are also moments where she perfectly integrates the bravura with moments of intense, almost speculative reflection. She explores an improvisatory quality in the first movement that one does not ordinarily hear. At 11.40 the romantic tracery takes on, in her hands, a bewitching aspect – one almost pointillist, almost proto-impressionistic in its compression. At such moments she seemingly takes the concerto beyond itself. In timing she is equidistant between Richter and Pogorelich – but she generates and sustains her own time here, unhindered by external temporal considerations. Her Andantino is notable for a splendid sense of her ensemble generosity. How verdant is the flautist here, the orchestral playing being fiery and sometimes raw but extremely exciting in general under René Köhler’s strong but fluid direction. Hatto brings an aristocratic humour to her pointing and in the Prestissimo section she is splendidly buoyant, avoiding all sense of indiscriminate and generalized powerhouse playing. Some may find her slow but many others will appreciate her finesse and sensitivity. In the finale she once more generates tension through shaping and not imposing it externally via less musical means. So once more she is, for example, as in the slow movement, half a minute slower than Solomon/Harty. There is a wealth of detail here to savour from the moulding and inflections, the powerful orchestral accelerandi, the finely chirping woodwind and the galvanizing triumph of the final bars, which end a performance of constant illumination and imaginative control.

Coupled with the Tchaikovsky is Saint-Saëns’ No. 4. She plays the Chaconne-like opening introduction with pensive and withdrawn tone, chordally terraced with acumen, tonally splendid. She doesn’t attempt to replicate Cortot’s more extreme rubati (with Münch, 1935) though she doubtless discussed this concerto with him in their work together after the War. Her right hand runs are laced, quick, superfine, but unostentatious and no bar to bringing out the melodic impress they bear. She and Köhler are nowhere near as suave as, say, Entremont with the Philadelphia and Ormandy but then I don’t think suavity is called for here. By comparison with Hatto Entremont is hard, unyielding and just plain lumpy. The wind and piano exchanges have a really delicious affection to them and Hatto displays once more a characteristic of hers in concertante works, which is to bind bravura and intimacy so tightly that they become identifiable components of each other. Hatto can be declamatory and bold but her tone never curdles or hardens (it’s a characteristic of his, possibly exaggerated by the CBS recording, that Entremont’s tone very definitely does harden, and not just at climaxes). Her rolled chords are wonderfully eloquent, her diminuendi full of poetry and her inwardness carries with it mystery and depth. In the Allegro vivace she is delightfully sprung and aerated - and serenity courses through the Andante of the tripartite second movement before a driving concluding Allegro. This, buoyed up by real tuneful elation, ends the work, and the performance, in triumph.

This is a persuasively impressive coupling. Those jaded by the Tchaikovsky may well want to sample Hatto’s Saint-Saëns – but will, I’m sure, stay to admire her performance of the former, which is as intelligent, sensitive and unselfconsciously authoritative as the latter. Individual and strong, Hatto’s performances never fail to inspire.

Jonathan Woolf

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