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Brilliant Classics

The Great Piano Concertos
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor Op. 23
St. Petersburg Academic Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
Recorded 30 March 1987
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)

Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor Op. 11
Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor Op. 21
Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, Dmitri Kitaenko
[Recorded ?27 March 1984]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor Op 37 (? 1800)
Piano Concerto No 5 in E flat major Op 73 Emperor (1809)
Emil Gilels (piano)
State Symphony orchestra of the USSR/Kurt Masur
Recorded 1976
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)

Piano Concerto
Rudolf Firkušny (piano)
Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra/Walter Susskind
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)

Piano concerto No.2 in C minor Op.18
Klára Würtz (piano)
National Symphony Orchestra of the Ukraine/Vladimir Sirenko
Recorded 2003
Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor Op.30
Nikolai Lugansky (piano)
State Academy Symphony Orchestra of Russia/Ivan Shpiller
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)

Piano Concerto in G major
Hélène Grimaud (piano)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Jésus Lopez-Cobos
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Piano Concerto in A minor Op.54
Klára Würtz (piano)
Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie/Arie van Beek
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Piano Concerto No.1 in E flat major
Piano Concerto No.2 in A major
Nelson Freire (piano)
Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra
Michel Plasson
Recorded Lukaskirche, Dresden 1994
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 92293 [6 CD set 64.39 +70.38 + 63.05 +72.39 + 63.36 +52.47]


Cut and paste, recycle, collate, reissue, revamp, money for old rope. Yes, that’s just my review. As for this box set ... well, something similar as well. In my position as grubbing hack I’ve encountered and reviewed a number of these performances in the last few years and here they are again, dished up into a six CD box set labouring under the no-holds-barred moniker of The Great Piano Concertos. Stone the crows, what have we got? Well since I can’t be expected to rephrase my original reviews I’ve helpfully reprised them for you under the rubric Warmed Up Old Critical Commonplaces and the Best of British to you. In case you can’t face wading through the text – can’t say I blame you, my style is a cross between The King James and the Sunday Mirror - let me tell you in advance that the Firkušny is a classic, the Gilels/Beethoven is valuable but not essential, Lugansky is worth hearing in Rach 3, Würtz less so in Rach 2 but more so in Schumann, that the Kissin/Chopin is not what it says it is, but the Kissin/Tchaikovsky is (more’s the pity), that the Grimaud/Ravel is only so-so and finally that Freire’s Liszt is something of an unknown quantity, at least over here but worth getting to know.

The least valuable disc is that which gives us a gestural and external Tchaikovsky No 1 with Gergiev at his least interesting and Kissin at his most superficial. The second Kissin disc continues with recordings of what Discover purports to be the famous 27 March 1984 Chopin Concertos concert with Kitaenko conducting the Moscow Philharmonic. It sounded wrong to me, horn fluffs, muffled sound, a distinctly different opening tempo for the Allegro maestoso of the E minor etc. I then listened to this disc side by side with the RCA recording and my doubts were confirmed. It is a live concert, true, but it’s not the one as advertised.

With regard to the Gilels/Beethoven the Third has a rather aggressive Gilels cadenza and some over smooth accents from Masur (the dropped notes from the pianist are a corollary of his commitment and convinced advocacy). The recording tends to highlight the booming timpani as well and all in all this clearly won’t stand above Cluytens and Szell – the commercial EMI not the two other live recordings (though other survivals include Kondrashin, Gauk, Sanderling – twice - and Karajan). As for the Fifth we have some finely flexible phrasing from Masur and a grave slow movement though the "timing" to the finale isn’t as well executed as Kempff/Leitner, but then whose is? His best performances of it remain those with Ludwig and Sanderling.

The textual problems surrounding the Dvořák Piano Concerto, whilst not as complex as matters Brucknerian, are still fairly murky. Wilem Kurz’s edition is published in the complete Dvořák edition and Firkušny studied with Kurz. This was the pianist’s third recording of the Concerto and he had moved steadily away from simple Kurz to more a melange of Dvořák-Kurz but with the former predominant. Much admired by Horowitz, Firkušny was the ideal champion of this under-appreciated work. His triumphant and limpid passagework animates the first movement’s Brahmsian moments effortlessly mitigating some of the more discursive passages at a tempo rather quicker than that of Sviatoslav Richter who recorded the concerto, with Carlos Kleiber in the original edition, at around the same time as Firkušny. There is a sheen on the violin tone and a quick responsiveness to their soloist by the St Louis orchestra that is admirable. There is some really memorable and blistering passagework in the central section of the first movement from Firkušny and listen at 10.50 to the strutting and braying trumpets (good dynamics too) as they blaze the orchestral material onwards. Firkušný’s phrasing meanwhile is the perfect mixture of affectionate lyricism and aristocratic control – the restatement of the opening theme is superbly passionate in his hands and magnificently delineated leading to a cadenza of seemingly limitless finesse, with lines brought out, architectural integrity maintained and a virtuoso technique put to the service of musical argument. In the slow movement I defy you not to find his treble lines of such limpid beauty that you will despair of hearing them played as well again. Yet the underlying momentum is always there, the impulse to linger firmly controlled and Firkušný’s variance of repeated material on the highest level of musical understanding. In the finale the often-criticised passagework comes alive in the soloist’s hands. Reflective, imitative, fascinating – it is extraordinary to listen to Firkušny extracting such a rich vein of meaning from a score so frequently derided. Susskind meanwhile, ever alert and ever superb, restrains the burgeoning con fuoco, vesting it with the chirping woodwind properly brought out and now leading, now following the piano’s line. Closely related thematically to the second of the three op 45 Slavonic Rhapsodies this is a real Czech dance, sprightly and confident, and leads to a tremendously effective conclusion sustained with heroic brio to the very end by Firkušny and Susskind.

Grimaud turns in an adequate recording of the Ravel, a work she has re-recorded (Baltimore/Zinman, Erato) but one that could set critical teeth on edge. She favours a distinct lack of synchronisation between hands in the slow movement to a considerable degree. It doesn’t even strike me as an attempt at historically informed performance style so much as eccentricity. Left before right hand playing was certainly a feature of a number of Golden Age pianists but Grimaud’s fitful playing is hardly reposeful or, ultimately, compelling. There are some fine orchestral contributions, granted, in the finale (trombone, principal trumpet, winds generally, though also a tad crude) but not enough for a real recommendation.

Lugansky has recorded Rachmaninov Three with the CBSO and Oramo (Warner). Here, in an all-Russian recording, his playing is pliant and smooth, not barnstorming and charged. The horns are characteristically wide but Lugansky remains lucid and controlled, taking good tempi and evincing good depth of tone without any loss of virtuosity. He never forces his tone and whilst it’s not the most Horowitzian heaven storming performance it has considerable reserves of musicality and digital command. The Second Rachmaninov comes from Klára Würtz who has a CD to herself. Her introduction is slow, measured, but there’s an unfortunate clangourous quality to her piano – especially in the octave below middle C and some of her playing here is erratic. The horns tend to boom and in the finale counter themes are too prominent, and there’s a lack of string mass; as a performance it sounds unemotionally dutiful. Her Schumann is much better; fine solo contributions from the woodwind choirs and excellent shaping of the inner string voices. Würtz fuses animation with reflectiveness and contributes a good first movement cadenza and if there isn’t optimum colour from her elsewhere it’s a sympathetic and idiomatic performance. Freire’s Liszt is generally good though certainly not outstanding. The recordings are not flattering in that they tend to be somewhat bass heavy and maybe Totentanz lacks the fiendish drama that other more incisive and daemonic players bring to it. But the slow movements have an attractive quality and Freire has a clear command of the ebb and flow of the occasionally discursive material of the Second.

A mixed bag, to say the least. The booklet has potted biographies of the pianists, nothing about the music, which is probably as it should be.

Jonathan Woolf


see also review by Göran Forsling

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