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Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major, Op.44 (1879-80)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in E flat, Op.posth.75 (1893)
Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Kurt Masur
Recorded ‘live’ in Avery Fisher Hall, Nov-Dec.1992 (2) and Jan. 1996 (3)
WARNER APEX 2564 61913-2 [58’11]

I was introduced to Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto in my teens, and ever since then have considered it a better piece than the ubiquitous first. That feeling was largely engendered by the performance, which I still feel to be one of the great concerto recordings. The pianist is Igor Zhukov, accompanied by the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra under Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, the label (of course) Melodiya and the whole reading is simply spellbinding, not just in terms of technical execution (Zhukov is phenomenal) but for the sweep, passion and feeling for the piece. Another, not insubstantial, reason for regarding this as a benchmark is the fact that it is played complete, with all Siloti’s savage cuts (particularly the slow movement) opened out, revealing the structure and composer’s intentions correctly. Even notable readings from Gilels, Cherkassky and a particularly thrilling account from Moel Mewton-Wood are ruled out (for me) by adopting the truncated version.

Happily, that view has largely altered, with excellent modern versions, totally complete, from Peter Donohoe, Jerome Lowenthal, Mikhail Pletnev, Viktoria Postnikova and, of course, the present artists Elisabeth Leonskaja and Kurt Masur. This version was originally on full price Erato coupled, interestingly and surely ideally, with the same key Grand Sonata in G major. Apex obviously considers the Third Concerto more apt for re-release - I’m not sure I agree - and so it comes into direct competition with a number of the above. Actually, I am very impressed with this reading, which has glorious tuttis from Masur and the New York Philharmonic and, possibly more importantly, the difficult solo part is despatched by Leonskaja with a bravura that recalls some of her great Soviet colleagues. More than once I was reminded of Zhukov’s steely fingered virtuosity (try the first movement’s great central cadenza at around 11’12) but her playing is tempered by a lyricism that may be gender related. Her treatment of the gorgeous second subject (2’32) is more graceful than Zhukov, with a singing line and natural, unforced rubato. When the heat is really on (pianistically speaking) she does resort occasionally to over-pedalling, where Zhukov rips into the cascading torrent of notes with no fear. But bearing in mind that this is ‘live’ (the booklet doesn’t say this, but there are far too many coughs and shufflings for the studio) this is mightily impressive piano playing. I was more convinced overall than Donohoe’s version, which I’ve always preferred for Barshai’s conducting than the solo playing. Donohoe’s slow movement, with its great trio sonata opening, boasts none other than Nigel Kennedy and Steven Isserlis as soloists, though the uncredited players on the Apex recording (presumably the respective leaders of the NYPO) are just as good, and the slight extra momentum in tempo does let the music flow more freely.

The finale is really thrilling, with Leonskaja in Argerich-like mode, making light of Tchaikovsky’s demands. There is more Germanic weight than other readings, probably due to Masur, but that does lend the music a gravity that is deserves.

The Third Concerto, an odd piece that started out as a symphony and ended as an unfinished one-movement Piano Concerto at the composer’s death, has been championed by most of the pianists listed above, but I have to say I remain unconvinced, both with the melodic material and orchestration. The recording comes from a few years later than the Second, but the smudged trombone entry at the start, plus some extraneous noise, might still suggest a live source. The original Sonata coupling may well have ensured a better market for this as a re-issue. My commitment to the Zhukov is still unshakable (it is on CD, though I’m not sure of current availability) but if you don’t know the wonderful Second Concerto, this is a pretty good starting place.

Tony Haywood

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