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Piotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Concert Fantasia in G major for Piano and Orchestra, Op.56 (1884)
  1. Quasi rondo. Andante mosso
  2. Contrasts

  3. Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)

    Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.16 (1912-13, rev. 1924)
  4. Andantino
  5. Scherzo. Vivace
  6. Intermezzo. Allegro moderato
  7. Finale. Allegro tempestoso

Igor Ardašev, piano
Prague Symphony Orchestra/Leoš Svárovský
Recorded in Smetana Hall, Municipal House, Prague, April 1998
SUPRAPHON 3757-2 [60:58]

Tchaikovsky – Pletnev/Fedoseyev/Virgin Classics
Prokofiev – Feltsman/Tilson-Thomas/Sony; Krainev/Kitaenko/Ultima

The more unusual offering on this new Supraphon disc is Tchaikovsky’s Concert Fantasia in G major. Although composed between the 4th and 5th Symphonies when Tchaikovsky was at the top of his musical powers, the Concert Fantasia has received very little exposure. One reason is that the work does not have the title of ‘Piano Concerto’. Tchaikovsky very much desired this title, but the two-movement structure mandated a different ‘moniker’. Another reason is that the form of the work does not carry the structural or emotional logic one finds in Tchaikovsky’s most popular creations. Putting matters of structure and title aside, the Concert Fantasia is a fine piece with many thrilling and stirring passages and themes.

The 1st Movement of the Concert Fantasia is particularly rewarding. You won’t find a more exciting and exuberant first 3-˝ minutes of music than offered in the first subject. Also, this first subject exhibits one of the most compelling aspects of the great composers, taking the listener to great heights not thought possible and then raising the bar even further as if a supernatural mother-ship was propelling us to transcendental wonders. That’s exactly what Tchaikovsky does in the first subject. His tremendous surge of energy gets an additional boost when an exploding piano part punctuated by the orchestra grabs hold of our senses and electrifies our nerve-endings [tr. 1 2.35].

The Ardašev version is a fine alternative to the excellent offering from Mikhail Pletnev. Ardašev and Svárovský impart greater drive to the Concert Fantasia than Pletnev and Fedoseyev who are the more exuberant performers. It is essentially a matter of drive versus lift, and I wouldn’t want to be without either performance.

The Concert Fantasia does have its bombastic moments, and Pletnev plays them to the hilt as if he is competing with the score for highest number of bombastic points. I much prefer that Ardašev injects sincere human urges at these moments and largely avoids the unrealistic and over-wrought route taken by Pletnev.

Pletnev and Fedoseyev enjoy the superior soundstage. There is an attractive bloom to their recording that even applies at low volumes. In contrast, the Ardašev soundstage is rather dry with a noticeable bloom only taking hold at high volume levels. Overall, the pros and cons of the recordings and performances tend to balance one another.

Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto in G minor is a product of his student period when he was considered a rebellious student straying too far from the traditional fold. Critics at the time had a field day when Prokofiev premiered the work, saying it "has nothing in common with civilized music" and referring to it as "a Babel of insane sounds".

Of course, times have moved on as have musical tastes, and the Concerto in G minor no longer sounds alien to the enjoyment of music. However, it is a powerful and stark work with sharp and frantic expressions mixed with a basic lyricism that wins the day.

Among its distinctive elements is perhaps the longest 1st Movement cadenza in any piano concerto written to date. Not only the longest cadenza, it might also be the most powerful one as well. At its conclusion, the orchestra led by the brass section bellows out so strongly that it sounds as if all of God’s fury is being unleashed upon the Earth. Not surprisingly, this cadenza is often referred to as the "Cadenza from Hell".

The 2nd Movement is a true ‘moto-perpetuo’ without even a hint of a rest. This is brilliant material that streaks through the sky; the form is brittle but never breaks. Brutality takes center stage at the outset of the 3rd Movement, and it is easy to understand how stunned that early 20th century audience might have been. Even more perplexing must have been the first theme of the 4th Movement with its frenetic display, which is however given over to a second theme of dark lyricism.

The primary reason I cite the comparison versions from Feltsman and Krainev is their divergent views of the work. Feltsman and the orchestra prioritize the poetry of the music with some reduction in conveying its darkest regions and modernist tendencies. Although a relatively romanticized account, the Feltsman version is very attractive and possesses fine rhythm. Krainev and Kitaenko offer us the sleek industrial-strength interpretation, fully bringing us the technical advances of the early 20th century; their message is that there is much work to do in order to keep up with the modern age and no time for sentimental thoughts.

Ardašev is a cross between Feltsman and Krainev, providing the best that each has to offer. Sleek and shimmering one moment, powerful and bleak the next, Ardašev is always at the service of Prokofiev’s music. I especially love his lyricism and growing urgency in the second theme of the final movement [tr. 6 2.23].

I’m not as enthusiastic about Svárovský’s conducting. He isn’t as willing as Ardašev to plumb the depths of human despair. He also does not summon that last ounce of all-powerful tension to the conclusion of the 1st Movement cadenza [tr. 3 10.52].

In summary, Igor Ardašev is the star of this Supraphon recording. Born in 1967, he is on the threshold of a wonderful career and already is receiving frequent praise for his recordings and concert appearances. I find his Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev performances outstanding as he displays all the lyricism and rapture called for in the Concert Fantasia and beautifully blends Prokofiev’s poetry and spiky rhythms. Overall, he has complete command of the keyboard and the composers’ idioms. The conducting and soundstage are not quite up to the high standards established by Ardašev, but the final verdict is definitely to consider this fine disc for your music library.

Don Satz

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