thought it’d make a nice change to start with a pæan – or at
least a partial pæan – for the booklet note. Running to nigh
on five closely-packed pages, David Fanning’s essay is a right
riveting read. Rarely will you find a composer’s relationship
to a musical genre better established, or his strengths and
weaknesses more cogently illuminated. Aye, and that’s the rub
– unlike many a booklet note this is neither deadpan description,
nor fan-club fodder, nor a hard-sell P.R. job, but a considered,
informed, perceptive and distinctly objective appraisal.
example, we’re always being told about Rubinstein’s famous condemnation
of the First Concerto, but how often does the commentator
question the reliability of the reportage – the only
account of the incident comes from Tchaikovsky himself – or
go on to examine it from Rubinstein’s viewpoint? Make no mistake,
this is “warts and all” stuff.
scraping off the encrusted cosmetics David paints a picture
that is more realistic than we’re accustomed to, yet, in apparently
contrary consequence, he thereby renders Tchaikovsky’s achievements
all the more endearing. My only beef is that he finishes on
a rather down-beat note, a violation of the critic’s cardinal
rule that could easily have been avoided by only a fairly minor
There you go! I’ve
just gone and done the self-same thing myself – see what I mean?
Right, on to the main business. Of the First Concerto,
that “warhorse di tutti warhorses”, my venerable and rather
dog-eared 1998 edition of the R.E.D Book lists over 100 alternatives.
I dread to think how many more have appeared since. There are
considerably fewer – a “mere” two dozen or so apiece – of the
other two concerti.
For those who favour
integral interpretations there are several sets comprising all
three concerti, generally coupled with Tchaikovsky’s substantial
– and aptly titled – Concert Fantasy. One of these last
is the set I have lodged in the bosom of my CD shelves, that
of Donohoe/Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Barshai (currently
available on EMI Gemini 5855402, 2 CDs), of which more anon.
This Danacord issue,
though, is a much rarer bird. It’s the first – and, for the
time being, only – single pianist compilation of Tchaikovsky’s
entire output of piano concertante works. Alright, the
extra bits aren’t exactly “lost masterpieces rediscovered” but,
even so, they will provide food for thought to anyone seriously
enamoured of Tchaikovsky’s greater contributions to the genre.
If you type Oleg
Marshev’s name into the MWI search page, you’ll find enough
reading to keep you out of mischief for a good week. So, all
I’ll say here is that Marshev knows his onions well enough to
give anybody a run for their money, and that his considered
approach to the music he plays is at variance with the prides
of young lions ever hell-bent on impressing us with their
Many of this ilk
might well dismiss Tchaikovsky’s piddling little Allegro
for Piano and Strings out of hand. David Fanning is perhaps
a teensy bit unjust in referring to, “. . . the restricted vocabulary
of harmony and gesture, the even more modest grasp of form .
. .” I happily go along with the “vocabulary” part but, let’s
face it, a playing time of just two and a half minutes leaves
precious little room for any sort of fancy formal footwork,
doesn’t it? However, that’s not really the point; the particular
fascination of this little piece is that it portends
virtually nothing of what was to come!
To his credit, Marshev
resists the temptation to just “get it over with”. Interpreting
what David calls “clumpiness” as an expression of naïve, youthful
vigour, he bangs out the theme with all the gusto of a pub pianist.
However, he also has a care for the calmer episodes, and lingers
just nicely long enough over the wistful moment prior to the
clumping coda. Hughes, otherwise limited to steering his ASO
strings through chains of chuntering and canonic echoes, seizes
the sole opportunity offered to the cellos, a broadened phrase
of the main theme which is the one moment that perhaps might
be construed as portentous.
Now, let’s turn
to the main events. You know, sometimes I feel so sorry for
the First Concerto. This has been done, and oft-times
done to death, by every pianist you can mention, along with
all the others that you’ve never even heard of – and even, I
shouldn’t wonder, the occasional over-ambitious pub pianist.
What was once a
formidable challenge, taken up only by the pianistic crème
de la crème, now seems to be something on which every aspirant
feels obliged to cut his milk teeth. We can bang on all we like
about “artists re-interpreting works for a new generation” but
the plain fact is that, for the most part, it’s all been done
before, somewhere in all those reams of recordings. Really,
these days all we’re getting is a game of virtuoso leap-frog,
whilst the Spirit of Insight rarely, rarely cometh.
If you’re starting
to suspect that I’m playing “John the Baptist” to Marshev’s
“Jesus Christ”, let me prick your bubble right now. Regretfully,
Marshev is only human. Instead of divine revelation,
what he brings to this overworked work – and indeed to all the
music in this issue – is that “considered approach” I mentioned
earlier, and which I discussed in my review
of his Liszt Piano Concerti (paragraph 4 onwards). At
this point, a broad-brush comparison with Donohoe is, I think,
One of the great
virtues of Donohoe and Barshai is their reliability, by which
I mean that they do everything very well indeed, whilst studiously
avoiding the sorts of thing that (a) in a live performance make
your ears sit up but (b) on repeated hearings end up driving
you batty. That’s not to suggest, you understand, that there’s
anything even remotely mediocre about this set. Quite the contrary.
Although none of the performances is likely to send you into
transports of ecstasy every time you hear it – that way lies
not enlightenment but Pavlov’s dog – every hearing of any of
them brings that pleasurable glow of re-acquaintance with an
old friend. To put it crudely, this is a set you could live
with until the cows come home.
In their different
way, Marshev and Hughes manage to give me much the same glow.
The differences between the two are those of character or, perhaps
more precisely, temperament. How best to describe this? I could
say that Donohoe, in the finest, tried-and-trusted English manner,
keeps his front foot to the line of the ball and plays his elegant
strokes with a dead-straight bat. By the same token Marshev,
not being English, is free to indulge in some relatively fancy
footwork and chance his arm a bit. It’s important to note that
this is not the same as saying that Marshev takes risks;
his eagle eye remains fixed firmly on that all-important ball.
The upshot is that,
by comparison, Marshev’s playing sounds more volatile, more
“off the cuff”. The benefit is that you get a recording that
imparts something of that live performance frisson, but
doesn’t end up driving you batty. Of course I don’t believe,
not for one second, that this is really “off the cuff”. Neither
do I believe that it is easy for a performer to simulate spontaneity.
Yet – uncomfortably aware as I am that I could be fully one
hundred percent wrong – that is the impression that Marshev
In keeping with
his “considered” approach, Marshev judiciously balances opposing
factors. Structural coherence moderates spontaneity, clarity
of articulation moderates animal excitement – whether it be
of velocity, or volume, or both together – whilst love and respect
for the music take precedence over virtuosic selfishness. All
basic stuff, I’d think, but all of it oft-times disdained by
the aforementioned young lions, in their eagerness to claw their
way to the top of today’s overcrowded musical marketplace.
Time for a bit of
substantiation. There are places where plenty of pianists take
off like bats out of hell, but Marshev doesn’t – and neither
does Donohoe, for that matter. However, rather than just giving
the game of virtuoso leap-frog a wide berth, Marshev is busy
creating elbow room for specific purposes. In the First Concerto,
he nudges the dotted rhythm of the first movement’s first subject,
giving it a cute little lilt, he teases the second movement’s
central episode, making it sparkle and flash, and he injects
a splendid spring into the step of the finale’s first subject.
It works the other way, too. In the Second Concerto,
by keeping things moving along Marshev renders the opening movement’s
second subject all the more wistful, whilst he infuses the second
movement’s romantic theme with a touch of charming caprice.
In some performances
of these concerti there are places where I have found myself
drumming my fingers, not to the rhythm of the music but in impatience.
I am ashamed (almost!) to admit that one such is the aforementioned
opening movement where Marshev argues so cogently that I find
myself carried with him through the movement’s longueurs. And
said longueurs, I might add, no longer added up to longueurs.
I feel a bit less
ashamed in the case of the Concert Fantasia’s cadenza,
a gargantuan effusion occupying over half of the movement, and
forming a “trio” flanked by “scherzo” sections, identical twins
à la Bruckner. As the cadenza proceeded, I gradually
became aware that Marshev was tautly controlling the “long view”
but, it seemed, continually modulating the details with a host
of neat little touches, thus cunningly creating a semblance
of extemporisation. Yet, in those flanking sections, I thought
that Marshev seemed curiously reticent, playing more like a
member of the orchestra than a proper soloist.
This puzzled me
until, in what I like to think of as a flash of inspiration,
I conjectured, “Perhaps that’s what Tchaikovsky intended
when he wrote it – the piano’s modest obbligato rôle in the
outer sections by contrast magnifies the already massive cadenza.”
The effect is as though, in a musical show, a member of the
chorus had stepped forward, belted out a sensational show-stopper,
then calmly stepped back into line. Wouldn’t this make more
sense than the usual scenario in which, for reasons best known
to itself, the big, bloated cadenza has – like Monty Python’s
giant boot – squashed flat the movement’s entire development
section? Well, Marshev seems to be thinking along those lines.
In the sighing coda of the Second Concerto’s second movement,
Marshev pulls a similar trick: he blends right into the
orchestral texture, and it sounds magical.
If I’ve given you
the impression that Marshev is simply soft-pedalling everything,
then rest assured that he isn’t, not by a long chalk. His big
guns are as big as anybody else’s, it’s just that he’s less
trigger-happy. For instance, he attacks the aforementioned cadenza’s
Grand Climax with sufficient over-indulgence to satisfy the
hedonistic lust of any confirmed piano-phile. Again, in the
Second Concerto, with his jolly phrasing the finale’s
main subject is as bright, brittle and rollicking as anyone
could wish, and he brings off the first movement’s hugely virtuosic
cadenza with such devastating panache that, for the moment,
I imagined I might be lying about that “considered approach”.
Unless you are one
who insists on nothing less than the plushest velour-upholstered
strings, you will find the ASO and the redoubtable Mr. Hughes
to be highly sympathetic accomplices. I don’t and I do,
respectively! True, the strings are a tad on the slender side,
and true, they can sound slightly scratchy up high but, as I’ve
noted on numerous occasions, slender strings are generally more
supple and athletic. Then again, as I’ve come to expect from
so-called “provincial” bands, their players manage to preserve
so much more personality.
In fact, the strings
do rather well. For instance in the Second Concerto,
at the opening of the second movement, Hughes draws from them
some delicious phrasing, with the soli both silky-toned and
throbbing with emotion. A bit later, at around 5:30 or so, the
string phrases have a distinct aroma of Elgar. I did wonder
if it was simply that I’d noticed it, but then, mindful
of my growing overall impression, I started to suspect that
it’d been deliberately pointed up by Hughes. Still later, a
“piano trio” emerges. This sounds delightful, with the string
soli – well earning their booklet credits – coiling over a rolling
and skipping piano, at once fleet and sedate, like sailboats
gliding through rippling water.
Regarding the start
of the Third Concerto, my curt jotting says it all: “fruity
bassoons”! At the start of the zestful third subject the strings
shine again, spitting out their staccati like pea-shooters in
overdrive. I just love this chirpy little motive! Sadly,
it’s come and gone in the blink of an eye. What a shame that
Tchaikovsky didn’t treat it to a bit more of the invention he
lavished on The Little Oak Stick. Still, there’s some
compensation here when, in the development, the strings positively
drool over the second subject.
Splendid as the
horns and brass are, the woodwind are a particular delight.
More than once I noted the charming contributions of the first
oboe, whose tone is distinctly nasal and reedy. Yes, I know,
those adjectives usually imply “awful”! Well, ask yourself this:
if you squeeze out all the “nasal” and “reedy” from an oboe’s
sound, what have you left? Something very pure, very sweet –
and also very anodyne and anonymous. That’s because “nasal”
and “reedy” are part of the instrument’s character. In my opinion,
the elite of the modern oboe fraternity have squeezed out far
too much of it. Not so the ASO’s first oboe, in whose tone still
moves the spirit of the great god Pan. I’m tempted – only “tempted”,
mind – to add: “Awesome!”.
Yet, the real joy
of these woodwind has to be the way they are deployed in the
overall ensemble. As early as the First Concerto’s second
subject I was impressed by the extraordinarily fine blending
of woodwind with strings/piano textures, which produced an uncommonly
sweet and tender effect. The more I listened, the more impressed
I became. Accustomed as I am, rightly or wrongly, to regarding
Tchaikovsky’s “symphonic” orchestration as “poster-paint vivid”,
I was transfixed by the stream of subtle touches of colour that
paraded past my ears. These had always been there, of course,
but until now I’d never really noticed them – hence the debt
of gratitude I owe to Owain Arwel Hughes, who brought them so
seductively into my ken.
Now, what about
the bulk of the “new” stuff, the two “missing” movements of
the Third Concerto? Well, for a start the stuff is not
exactly “new”, as these movements derive from the same source
as the extant, single-movement concerto. That source is the
abortive symphony that Bogatyryov much later licked into something
like shape, and dubbed Symphony No. 7. Having made a
really good job of “concerto-ising” the symphony’s more or less
complete first movement, Tchaikovsky tried to repeat the feat
with the sketchier second and fourth movements. He gave it up
as a bad job. After his death, Taneyev prepared performing editions
of the largely unorchestrated drafts.
Guess what? They
sound very good! However, here I’m referring solely to Taneyev’s
skilful and imaginative orchestration. The problem is that,
in exercising his orchestral art, Taneyev disregarded
niceties such as emulating Tchaikovsky’s. Why, I don’t
know. He had the entire first movement as his template and guide,
yet he all but ignored it. But this isn’t the reason that the
results are less than convincing. The blame for that lies with
the piano writing – which is all Tchaikovsky’s own work.
disbelief is dispelled by experience. Of all the music in this
set, the nearest match for the Andante’s piano style
is the Allegro, written a whole lifetime earlier. I had
listened to this Andante before hearing the Second
Concerto. Of this latter’s second movement, which is also
an andante, I noted, “What a difference from the Andante of
‘Concerto No. 3’! This is about as long, but passionate and
involving where the other is, comparatively, decidedly wan and
I wouldn’t be at
all surprised to learn that Tchaikovsky had been bored to tears
with the sheer slog involved in adapting a symphonic movement
– and a “failed” one, at that – for a concertante purpose. The
music seems to confirm it: much of the time the piano part consists
of simple, “block” chordal accompaniment, a far cry from the
purposeful reticence of the Concert Fantasia. In view
of the consistently high standard of the other performances
in the set, I can only conclude that the players make the best
they can of the composer’s “bad job”.
Life is full of
surprises, isn’t it? I got one such when the Finale emerged
from my loudspeakers: “Stomping start! Wow, this is more like
it.” Marshev and the ASO, laying into the vigorous theme with
gusto, created a sound for sore ears. The second subject was
every bit as catchy – played by the woodwind with piano accompaniment,
it sounded like nothing other than a jolly proletarian marching
song. Sadly, this all soon ran out of steam, with whole swadges
of the movement coming across as academic note-spinning, uninspired
– and uninspiring.
My heart was therefore
lifted by Marshev’s cadenza, which disgorged a whopping build-up
to the “traditional” Big Tune treatment of the second subject.
Belted out by a liquid, golden, shining trumpet, underpinned
by “machine-gunning” horns, it made a thoroughly lovely noise.
But, there was something missing. What? Ah, yes – shouldn’t
there have been a piano, pounding away like billio? Well,
believe it or not, there wasn’t.
must be careful. Taken in isolation, my comments on the Andante,
and to a lesser degree the Finale, could give the impression
that these pieces are rubbish. To some extent they are – but
only by comparison with undisputed masterpieces like the First
and Second Concerti. Nevertheless, provided that the
listener doesn’t overburden them with expectations, they are
pleasant enough. However, there is more, because here there
is also sorrow. This sorrow is not in the music itself, but
in our apparent eavesdropping on a great composer, struggling
against his own inadequate materials in a vain attempt to regain
his former glory.
recorded sound quality is pretty good, with one small reservation.
Generally, the performers are set in a warm, natural-sounding
perspective, where the instruments that are further back do
indeed sound to be further away. However, the strings seem to
occupy a different, slightly hollow-sounding (“bathroomy”) acoustic.
Consequently, their relative level says that they are close
by, but their ambience insists that they are much further off.
This might jar the ears of a few listeners, but only
those whose ears happen to be especially sensitive to the conflicting
inputs. I noticed it – obviously! – but I found that I soon
“forgot” about it. It is by no means a pronounced effect, and
– N.B! – is apparent mainly because the overall sound quality
is so high as to expose it.
the booklet, the track details of the Concert Fantasia’s
first movement have been garbled. Otherwise this issue maintains
the superb standard we have come to expect of Danacord. It continues
the attractive “house style” associated with this series of
Russian piano concertos. This style is made doubly attractive
by the use of atmospheric paintings for the covers, which is
far preferable to the all-but-ubiquitous – and for some companies
mandatory? – pin-up pictures of seemingly self-serving soloists.
Danacord does include photographs of the pianist and conductor,
but puts them inside the booklet, right where they belong.
Should you rush
– or even just stroll – out and buy this set? With so many factors
clamouring for attention, that could be a tricky question. Let’s
try to break it down a bit, into some not necessarily independent
categories. Maybe you haven’t already got these works? No, seriously
– new shoots are always coming up in any garden! Maybe money
is no object? In either case, you’d be buying a set with the
enviable combination of solid dependability and imaginative
At the other extreme,
maybe you feel your needs for Tchaikovsky piano concertos are
well-enough served by what you already have? Ah, now that’s
the tricky one, to which my answer would have to be, “Then why
are you reading this?” Presumably, then, you’re not entirely
happy, or otherwise prospecting for a change. With such a vast
array of alternatives from which to choose, this is no mean
undertaking and, almost by definition, one on which authoritative
– and comprehensive – advice will be hard to come by.
I don’t profess
any such authority, but I can say this: you could do worse –
much worse – than this one. If it lacks the last ounce of incandescence,
it is for the best of all possible reasons: that “last ounce
of incandescence” has been re-invested in a whole host of deft
interpretative touches, thus securing longevity of interest
through repeated hearings. In other words, a lifetime of fascination
beats a one-off burn-up, hands down, every time.
Maybe you’re a congenital
completist, or simply enjoy the luxury of having everything
at your fingertips? Maybe you’re a Tchaikovsky scholar, or a
Tchaikovsky fanatic, or just intrigued by “new” discoveries?
In these cases, you’re bound by Hobson’s choice, but at least
you can take solace in the fact that there is also something
“new” to hear in the well-known works.
when something “new” by an established master is unearthed,
our first thought is, “What can it tell us about how the composer
developed?” In this instance, we find one tiddly little bit
of juvenilia that tells us virtually nothing about how
Tchaikovsky developed, and nearly 25 minutes of music from the
opposite pole of his career that tells us much the same. Our
initial disappointment is – or should be – short-lived because
instead, and much more unusually, we learn something about a
composer’s path to failure. If anything, this affords us still
greater fascination, even if it is of the morbid variety.
That all the performances
and recordings have a great deal to commend them is the icing
on the cake – with David Fanning’s essay as a tasty cherry.