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Piotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Concerto no.1 in B flat minor, op.23*
Sergey PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)

Piano Concerto no.3 in C major, op.26*
Toccata, op.11
Mily BALAKIREV (1837-1910)

Islamey – Oriental Fantasy
Joyce Hatto (piano)
National Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra/René Köhler
Recorded in the Concert Artist Studios, Cambridge, March 3rd 1997 (Prokofief Concerto), March 5th 1997 (Tchaikovsky, Toccata), March 16th 1999 (Balakirev)
CONCERT ARTIST/FIDELIO RECORDINGS CACD9195-2 [67.31]



The more records I hear by this quite extraordinary pianist the more my admiration for her grows. Extraordinary, not in the sense of calling attention to what she is doing and imposing herself between us and the music, but in that she always seeks to realize the particular style of the composer. If these records had been issued under a series of pseudonyms, a German name for the German/Austrian repertoire, a Polish name for Chopin, a Hungarian name for Liszt and a Russian name for Russian composers (I haven’t heard her in French music so far), I suggest that few if any would have seen any reason to doubt that the pianist behind each name was of that particular nationality.

True, her Tchaikovsky is not hysterical or neurotic, but as Nikolai Malko and Rudolf Barshai have shown, not all Russians are like that anyway. This is a swashbuckling, no-holds-barred account. From the opening bars the conductor makes it clear that he means business (is this really the same man who did a just about adequate job of Hatto’s Brahms 2?) and whatever this orchestra really is, it’s brazen-toned horns are the real thing. The introduction swings along at a pace only a little slower than Horowitz/Toscanini (but that little makes all the difference; the music is allowed to emerge here). When the real body of the first movement starts, Hatto is one of the few pianists in my experience who manages to put sufficient accent on the first note of each pair to avoid our getting the impression that the accent is on the second, with incongruous results when the orchestra enters and seems to want to give the soloist a lesson in how to play the theme. It’s easy for the orchestra so they always get it right; it’s dashed difficult for the soloist and most don’t seem to try.

I won’t go on to give a blow-by-blow account; I will simply record that when I got to the end I realized that, unusually when I hear this repertoire that I’ve heard so many times, I had simply been listening to the music with sheer enjoyment and delight in Tchaikovsky’s own genius. Every performance ought to do this but too few do. If I wanted to be carpingly critical I could say that I thought the second subject in the last movement a mite heavy-handed (delicacy is not lacking elsewhere) and that recorded perspectives seem to shift, with the piano sometimes alarmingly gargantuan compared with the orchestra and at others fitting in with it nicely – and in the last few pages it veers between the two. But if you want a performance which brings the old warhorse up as fresh as paint, this is it.

The balance is consistently good in the Prokofiev. Once again it is the conductor who has to start things off, and he does so by sounding a note of strong passion. Sure enough, this is not one of the performances that makes Prokofiev seem a 20th Century Saint-Saëns, for it has a similar strength and purpose to the Tchaikovsky, with the addition of flashes of droll wit and irony. In short, this performance hits the mark too.

In addition we get two of the most notoriously difficult – nay hair-raising – Russian pieces for solo piano, both brought off with fine aplomb. I did wonder if the pianissimos in the Prokofiev might not have been even softer – not that Hatto barges through at a steady fortissimo, the dynamic contrasts are there but what I miss is a sense of latent power.

The sheer virtuoso demands of Balakirev’s "Islamey" have led to it’s being considered a sort of test-piece for the would-be world-beater; I suppose it’s to my own loss that I somewhat doubt if its musical returns repay the eight minutes spent listening to it, let alone the eight hours a day for eight months or whatever it takes to set up an acceptable performance. Hatto has all the virtuoso heft to bring it off, whatever one’s opinion of its worth.

Christopher Howell

The Tchaikovsky is also available coupled to Saint-Saens Piano concerto No 4. See revies by Jonathan Woolf and William Hedley

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