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  Founder: Len Mullenger
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Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor Op.23
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor Op.18
Alexei Sultanov (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra/Maxim Shostakovich
Recorded at Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Suffolk in November 1989
TELDEC APEX 0927 408352 2 [68.48]

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Both composers had a pretty rough start to their careers and these two piano concertos had their respective roles to play. Tchaikovsky’s concerto, when he played it through at the Moscow Conservatoire (where, ironically, he was a professor of composition) to the Director, Nikolai Rubinstein, who was reputedly a fine pianist himself. He dismissed the concerto as ‘worthless and completely unplayable, any corrections would be pointless’. Hans von Bülow, on the other hand, received it gratefully (unchanged) as ‘spellbinding in every respect’ and was happy to be its dedicatee. The German master pianist performed it for the first time on 25 October 1875, and in due course a rather abashed Rubinstein took it up (poor Tchaikovsky seemed to make a point of such misalliances, another was Auer’s rejection of his violin concerto, then taken up triumphantly by Adolph Brodsky in 1876, and then shamefacedly by Auer).

Rachmaninov had a bad start when Glazunov made a drunken mess of conducting the young man’s first symphony in 1897, which cost him a three-year period of depression and artistic inertia. It was a crude form of psychiatry and hypnosis which restored his self-confidence and provided the impetus to produce his second piano concerto at the beginning of the century. Its first performance took place on 27 October 1901 with the composer as soloist. Juxtaposing both concertos here underscores their similar starts (if dissimilar moods), introductions with block chords on the piano which do not recur in the concerto. Unlike the Prelude in C sharp minor, which he was always pressed to include in his recitals if only as an encore, he loved playing this work throughout his life. One thinks of the appearance in 1938, just five years before his death, at London’s Royal Albert Hall to honour Sir Henry Wood (a good friend) in his Jubilee Year.

Two war-horses they may be but this pair of piano concertos never fail to please, unless badly played, which happily on this disc they are not, neither are they poorly accompanied. Alexei Sultanov has a wonderfully impressive technique, injecting both sensitivity and tenderness where called for, full-blooded tone into the handfuls of chords at dramatic or impassioned moments, and gifted with an amazing facility in bringing out every semiquaver in the many cascades of runs. This is an excellently balanced disc, if a little lacking in depth of resonance and bloom in Snape, but one in which Maxim Shostakovich draws warmth and colour from the LSO’s sound in all departments. He manages to bring out details not often heard in the woodwinds in the Tchaikovsky concerto, reminding us constantly of this supreme composer of ballet scores. Indeed there are moments in the Andantino of the Tchaikovsky and in the Adagio of the Rachmaninov in which he manages to transform the orchestra’s sound to that of a Russian one (in particular the various solos); no mean achievement. The strength of these performances is their freshness and immediacy. One gets the impression that this collaboration was all happy music-making.

Christopher Fifield

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