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Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23 Felicja Blumental - piano
Orchestra of the Vienna Musikgesellschaft/ Michael Gielen Recorded Vienna 1957
Anton ARENSKY (1861-1906)
Piano Concerto in F minor, Op. 2
Felicja Blumental - piano
Brno Philharmonic Orchestra/Jiri Waldhans
Recorded Milan 1968
BRANA RECORDS BR0013 [58:06]

The pianist Felicja Blumental (1908-1991) is very much the focus of this disc; one in a series that Brana is producing to celebrates the work of a great artist. Hers was an eclectic repertoire from baroque to contemporary. It included many little known works as well as those written for her by leading composers of the day.

The two concertos on the disc make for an interesting coupling, juxtaposing what is arguably the most popular romantic piano concerto with a youthful work by a much lesser known composer. Yet romanticists who do not know Anton Arensky’s Piano Concerto may find it hugely enjoyable if not a revelation in Blumental’s hands.

Born in Poland in 1908, the Jewish Blumental and her husband fled the country before the Nazi invasion and settled in Brazil. She travelled widely and mixed in musical and visual arts circles on a global scale. She had her portrait painted by many artists and, no mean talent herself, sometimes turned the tables by sketching the painter during sittings including Marc Chagall.

The Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto was recorded in 1957 and the sound is difficult to describe. Simultaneously thin and harsh with a piano sound that quickly decays would be a start. Not only that, the focus is way over to the left channel, especially the piano. These factors in themselves would rule the recording out in a crowded field which is as competitive as you can get. But even the performance would not compete too well. Blumental and conductor Michael Gielen do not always seem to see eye to eye. In orchestral passages Gielen often urges onward, upping the tempo, and when the piano enters Blumental appears to be reining him back. This is particularly noticeable in the last movement and the piano’s opening tune with its rapid off-beat syncopation sounds surprisingly unspringy. From a purely technical point of view, Blumental sounds less comfortable with quick repeated chords and arpeggios than she is in scale passages and filigree work where she excels. She can turn in a scale of breathtaking accuracy and delicacy that reminds me of Sviatoslav Richter. Thus she shines in the prestissimo of the middle movement. Pianist and orchestra are more at one in this movement than elsewhere and even the sound is better (it seems to improve in quieter parts).

Anton Arensky’s Piano Concerto was written in the year of his graduation with a gold medal at the St Petersburg Conservatory. The Tchaikovsky Concerto is clearly a model and there is plenty of Lisztian rhetoric and hot air. But a notably feature of Arensky’s style is the flowing, melodic nature of the piano writing which is reminiscent of Chopin. As in Chopin’s concertos, melodies are decorated with delicate ornamentation and this is where Blumental really comes into her own (incidentally, I admire her Chopin – Brana have already released two discs). In fact the performance fares far better than the Tchaikovsky on all fronts, especially, I am glad to say, in respect of the sound. Recorded in Milan in 1968, the balance is good with the piano firmly in the middle this time. There is one interpretive issue I found disconcerting and that is the slow speed at which the “Scherzo-Finale” is taken. This is surely not the allegro molto which the composer asks for. For that you would have to go to Hyperion’s fine 1992 recording of the work with Stephen Coombs and the BBC Scottish SO – at full price.

If you want to add a little known concerto to your collection at medium price then Blumental’s performance could be considered if you can tolerate that steady finale. The Tchaikovsky Concerto comes more as an item of historical interest although fans of Felicja Blumental will no doubt need to own the recording.

John Leeman

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