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Brilliant Classics

CD 1: Sergey RACHMANINOV (1873 – 1943): 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
Licensed from Challenge Classics (Rachmaninov); Published 1992 (Ravel)
CD 2: Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 – 1893): Piano Concerto No 1 in B flat minor op 23
Evgeny Kissin (piano), St Petersburg Academic Symphony Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841 – 1904): Piano Concerto in G minor op 33
Rudolf Firkusny (piano), St Louis Symphony Orchestra/Walter Süsskind
Live recording March 30, 1987 (Tchaikovsky); Licensed from VOX, USA (Dvorak)
CD 3: Frédéric CHOPIN (1810 – 1849): Piano Concerto No 1 in E minor op 11; Piano Concerto No 2 in F minor op 21
Evgeny Kissin (piano), Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra/Dmitri Kitaenko
Live recording March 27, 1984 in the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory
CD 4: Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 – 1827): Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor op 37; Piano Concerto No 5 in E flat major op 73
Emil Gilels (piano), State Symphony Orchestra of the USSR/Kurt Masur
Live recording December 1976
CD 5: Sergey RACHMANINOV (1873 – 1943): Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor op 18
Robert SCHUMANN (1810 – 1856): Piano Concerto in A minor op 54
Klára Würtz (piano), National Symphony Orchestra of the Ukraine/Vladimir Sirenko (Rachmaninov); Nordwestdeutsche Philharmonie/Arie van Beek (Schumann)
Recorded February 1, 2003 in Chassé Theater, Breda, The Netherlands (Rachmaninov); November 16, 2003 in Philharmonie Hereford, Germany
CD 6: Franz LISZT (1811 – 1886): Piano Concerto No 1 in E flat major; Piano Concerto No 2 in A major; Totentanz
Nelson Freire (piano), Dresdner Philharmonie/Michel Plasson
Recorded September 1994 in Lukaskirche, Dresden
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 92293 [6 CDs: 64:39+70:38+63:05+72:39+63:36+52:47]

This box is a very mixed bag in more sense than one. The original recordings are of very differing ages, the oldest probably Firkusný’s Dvořák concerto, licensed from VOX and sounding 1960s. (By the way, neither the designer of the box cover nor the anonymous author of the booklet text seems to be aware of the inclusion of this recording. Otherwise the booklet gives very informative, and up-to-date, information about the pianists but none whatsoever about the music.) There is also a mix of studio recordings and live performances, a mix of analogue and digital recordings, and listening to several of them in a row you can’t help noticing the differences in recording quality and in acoustics, but listen to one or two at a time and it doesn’t matter, and who would think of listening to six concerto discs in one or two sittings, anyway? Not even a reviewer, I would think. The title of the set reads "The Great Piano Concertos” (my italics) and there is no questioning that all of these, possibly excluding the Dvořák, are Great concertos, but the definitive article implies that there are no other great concertos around – and there are. To justify the The, I would have liked to see at least a couple of Mozart works: the D minor and the C minor and the A major (No 23) the most likely. I would also have included the Brahms B flat major and why wasn’t Grieg allowed to take part? The 20th century is also under-represented. Of course the Rachmaninovs are there but they belonged to a bygone era even when they were new. The Ravel is there – it’s one of my personal favourites across all categories – but Prokofiev wrote five, of which at least No 3 belongs to the great ones, we do have Bartók and Shostakovich and, from the new world, Gershwin’s in F. But that would have been a very large box indeed, so why not mentally put in a little "Volume One" on the front of the box and hope for a "Volume Two" in the near future, including these aforementioned works?

After this carping (why do reviewers always have to be so negative?) over to the actual contents of the box. I started with CD 1 and worked through them in chronological order and I am going to discuss them in that order too. I didn’t make many comparisons with other recordings since it’s the overall quality of the box that counts and comparisons can be left to the individual listener. Most readers probably have most of these works already, so before I started working I posed two questions: A. If I know a young person just beginning a record collection, will this be a good start? B. If I am a jaded collector with loads of concerto recordings on my shelves, can this still be an interesting addition? Maybe I shouldn’t forestall my final verdict, but to my ears the answer to both questions is YES!

On CD 1 we meet the former Tchaikovsky Competition Winner Nikolai Lugansky, a pupil of Tatiana Nikolayeva and one of several child prodigies in this box. He has a formidable technique, but this is not just a show-off performance – there is also a lot of poetry in his playing. This, Rachmaninov’s probably very best composition, is one of the most challenging in the concerto repertoire, both technically and emotionally. The melodic material is not as catchy as in his number two but it lends itself better to a symphonic treatment. The orchestra sounds a bit anonymous in the first movement but in the opening of the second we are given very beautiful, soft string playing and the soloist responds in the same manner when he enters. It may be my equipment that makes the orchestra sound a bit congested in the first two movement but for some reason there is much more clarity in the third. There is an impressive build-up of dark tension before the very end, where pianist and orchestra together bring the work to a grandiose conclusion in true Warner Brothers’ style.

Ravel’s G major concerto, which follows with far too short an interval after the Rach 3, is given a truly great performance. The sound is superlative, analytical yet warm, Lopez-Cobos draws tremendously precise playing from the orchestra (the RPO on top form) and Hélène Grimaud, another former teenage star, plays marvellously. Hardly anywhere else in his oeuvre is Ravel as inventive and as humorous as in this concerto’s outer movements. No ice cold calculation here; just listen to the end of the first movement, swinging frantically, while in sharp contrast, the second movement is so beautifully hushed with a whole palette of piano and pianissimo nuances from the soloist. Listen also to the lovely woodwind solos: the flute after c 3 minutes and at 6:10 the plaintive English horn. The short presto finale is one intense explosion with boisterous playing from all sections of the orchestra. This must be one of the best G Majors available.

On CD 2 we get a majestic reading of the Tchaikovsky B flat minor, recorded live in 1987 by a 16-year-old Evgeny Kissin with Gergiev conducting. The well known start of the first movement has rarely been more powerfully played, both soloist and conductor pulling all the stops. It is a really big sound but still not over blown, and when we are past the first 3˝ minutes there is a lot of marvellous pianissimo playing. Gergiev is of course one of the great Tchaikovskians around – I remember a great Mazeppa performance at Savonlinna some years ago – and he ensures that the delicate woodwind scoring in the slow movement is brought out. Generally there is a good balance between soloist and orchestra and even if I at the moment is a bit exhausted after playing the concerto twice at high volume, I will certainly return to it when other versions seem too well-behaved.

The Dvořák concerto, written in 1876, the year after his lovely fifth symphony, is an agreeable work, worth an occasional listen but not on a par with his cello- and violin concertos and lacking the typical Dvořákian fingerprints. The sound picture is more distant and thinner; the strings can appear a bit under-nourished. Turning up the volume produces a fuller string sound but also a boomier bass. The legendary Rudolf Firkusný (b. 1912) was of course a compatriot of Dvořák’s and should have this music in his blood and it is not his fault that some of it gives a bland impression. The first movement at 18 minutes feels overlong. The second movement is atmospheric, giving the feeling of a calm late summer evening but also a prevailing sadness. The third movement is lively but – anonymous. It’s good though to have this recording, at least for historical reasons.

When we move over to CD 3 we are in historical territory of a different kind. It was recorded live on March 27, 1984, in the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatory by a 12-year-old (!) Kissin. The recording has been released before. In the west it was for a while available on Olympia and in 1996 it appeared on RCA. The concert was/is a miracle. First of all the sheer stamina of the child (photos from the occasion show a boy who looks even younger than his actual age) who plays both the Chopin concertos – plus a handful of encores (the latter were included in the RCA but not here)! Moreover Kissin is not only up to all the considerable technical demands, he is also a mature interpreter. He plays phrase after phrase of Chopin’s wonderful melodies to perfection. There isn’t a dull moment on the CD. The Moscow Philharmonic also contribute admirably under Kitaenko, but in these concertos it is the soloist who is constantly in the lime-light. What is typical in both concertos is that Kissin – and the conductor – move things on without for a moment sounding hurried. There is a natural flow in the music. Still I was surprised to find that the only other recording I have on CD (Idil Biret on Naxos; another recommendable version) is so much slower. Her E minor concerto is more than 8 minutes longer than Kissin’s! I wish that Kissin of today was as flexible and spontaneous as twenty years ago.

CD 4 is another Russian live recording, made as far back as December 1976. Here we meet two noted Beethoven specialists, Emil Gilels and Kurt Masur. If both concertos (Beethoven’s third and fifth) were recorded on the same occasion I don’t know. Just as in the other live recordings in this box there are very few signs of an audience present, apart from the applause in the end which are very quickly faded out. The recording, though, shows its age. The piano sound is a bit clangorous and the orchestra not as focused as you could wish, but my ears soon adjusted and after that it was a pleasure to hear Gilels wonderful legato playing, especially in concerto No 3. In No 5, which is the more outgoing, I have a slight feeling he sometimes switches to auto-pilot. But even then he is attractive to listen to.

On CD 5 we meet the least well-known of these pianists. Klára Würtz is Hungarian and has studied for among others Zoltán Kocsis. Today she is professor of piano in Utrecht but has a busy career as a chamber musician and soloist, not least in the US. She has also made nearly 20 CDs, among them the complete piano sonatas of Mozart, some Schubert and obviously a lot of Schumann. She gives a well-balanced reading of the ubiquitous second concerto by Rachmaninov, and if that sounds like damning with faint prize I must hasten to add that balance is what this concerto needs. It can be played heart-on-the-sleeve with inflated gestures to show off the pianist. Klára Würtz has all the technical prowess but she isn’t showy, she never exaggerates and that is all gain. After all a considerable part of this concerto is lyrical and the celebrated "Full Moon and Empty Arms" in the third movement is so much better for being slightly under-played. I happened to listen to Anthony Quinn’s famous 1960s recording where he says "I love you" in so many different, and equally expressive ways, and it struck me that "Full moon ..." can be a musical equivalent. I liked very much Klára Würtz’ inflections.

Even better is her Schumann. His music can also be over-played and it is a relief to hear her natural way with this oft-heard music. Again it’s the lyricism that is so striking with her interpretation; listen especially to her lovely shaping of the second movement. These are, by the way, brand new recordings, made in February and December 2003, respectively.

Coming, finally, to CD 6 I immediately was bowled over by the marvellous playing of another child prodigy. Brazilian Nelson Freire, according to the booklet, "made his first public appearance at the age of four" and at 12 won the international piano competition in Rio de Janeiro, playing Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. After that he has had a very successful international career, famous not least for his cooperation with Martha Argerich. I have ever since the 1960s admired a recording of the first of Liszt’s two concertos, made by the then only middle-aged Earl Wild. Nelson Freire has the same combination of steely-fingered lyricism. The dark-hued Totentanz, which is a paraphrase on Dies Irae, shows the same qualities: fantastic fireworks and subtle pianissimo. Backed up by the Dresden Philharmonic led by the ever-sensitive Michel Plasson and recorded with great presence in the atmospheric but not over-resonant Lukaskirche, this is another winner.

Summary: there may be individual readings of some of these works that are even better, but taken as a whole and considering the give-away price, this box is worth anybody’s money. It doesn’t cost much more than your usual bag-in-box of claret and will last much longer.

Göran Forsling

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