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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Concertos: No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23 (1874) [33’21]; No. 3 in E flat, Op. 75 (1893) [16’02]. Andante and Finale, Op. 79 (orch. Taneyev) [19’52].
Konstantin Scherbakov (piano)
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitry Yablonsky.
Rec. Studio No. 5, KULTURA State TV & Radio Company, Moscow, on March 14th-17th, 2003. DDD
NAXOS 8.557257 [69’12]


Konstantin Scherbakov’s previous offerings on Naxos: Rachmaninov (mixed reactions) and Shostakovich (more positive), have been at the very least stimulating. His Schubert/Godowsky disc on Marco Polo also had positive qualities. Here, entering a massively crowded field, he presents his take on Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto, coupled with the Third Concerto. The material of the Third Concerto originates in an intended symphony that the composer began in late 1891. The Andante and Finale, Op. 79 constitutes a reworking of the second and third movements of that symphony. The revision and scoring was undertaken by Taneyev after Tchaikovsky’s death, being published in 1897.

First, to the war-horse of all war-horses. Huge competition here, of course, and everyone will have their own favourites. Scherbakov is highly unlikely to dislodge any of them. The famous opening of the concerto sets the scene for the rest of the performance. The Russian Philharmonic is workaday in approach, while Scherbakov is rather ‘plonky’ with his chords. There is a fairly easy flow, but as the movement progresses, excitement remains a fairly infrequent visitor. Witness the famous double-octaves (around 10’20), here careful, ever aware of the all-hearing microphones; does Scherbakov let his hair down here in live performance, I wonder? If the cadenza includes fair fantasy and some undeniably excellent trills, it does not vindicate Scherbakov’s generally pedestrian overview.

The saving grace of the second movement is the orchestral contribution to the Prestissimo. They play against Scherbakov’s Czerny-like figures. The finale generally inspires one of two approaches, dance-like or Klaviertigerisch. Scherbakov, oddly, sits on the fence as if not sure how to play it - in both senses. The result is curiously devoid of any real emotion. The great orchestral build-up to the pianist’s final octaves does go well, Yablonsky timing it well. However the octaves themselves lack drive; definitely a case of too little, too late. The final sprint is acceptable, no more, with little fire and even less wit.

Interesting that the Third Concerto elicits the best from Scherbakov - the whole disc we recorded in one set of sessions over four days - see title. The playful and the lyric find themselves in concordance here. Scherbakov even produces some truly beautiful scales (around 10’30) and he regularly gives great attention to the shaping of left-hand accompaniments. It is a pity that the recording adds an edge to the piano tone over forte; it would be interesting to compare an SACD version of the same recording.

The Andante and Finale, Op. 79 makes up the rest. The serious, rich opening to the Andante makes for rewarding listening, as does the dreamy entrance of the soloist. Again, pluses and minuses, as the cello sound comes out as scratchy - yet Scherbakov’s quasi-extempore passage around 7’00 is just the thing. More swings and roundabouts in the Finale, where the violent, bangy opening emerges as really quite un-Tchaikovskian; yet the cadenza is quite impressive.

Not really memorable, then, unless one is tracking Scherbakov’s career. The Third Concerto may not inspire, but it may give fair pleasure. The First Concerto does neither.

Colin Clarke

see also review by Paul Shoemaker


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