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Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Complete Music for Piano and Orchestra
Concert Fantasy Op. 56* [27.52]
Piano Concerto No. 1 Op. 23** [36.04]
Piano Concerto No. 2 Op. 44*** [46.47]
Piano Concerto No. 3 Op. 75+ [27.52]
Violin Concerto in D, Op.35++ [37:54]
Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op.33+++ [18:17]
Peter Donohoe (piano)*/**/***/+; Nigel Kennedy (violin)***/++; Steven Isserlis (cello)***
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Rudolf Barshai */**/***/+
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Okko Kamu++
Paul Tortelier (cello); Northern Sinfonia/Yan-Pascal Tortelier+++
rec. 3-4 August 1986***; 27 July and 24 August 1987+; 18 and 20 July 1988**; 17 July and 1 Aug 1989*, Wessex Hall, Poole Arts Centre, Dorset DDD*/**/***/+; 14-15 April 1985 Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London DDD++; 24-25 April 1973 No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London ADD+++
EMI CLASSICS TRIPLE 5 00962 2 [3 CDs: 64.14 + 63.14 + 56:11] 

These versions of the three piano concertos and the Concert Fantasy have already appeared on a 2-CD EMI Gemini release, in which form they were reviewed by Rob Barnett (hereafter RB) in November 2003. They remain available in that format, for around £8.50 in the UK. Now they reappear on the new EMI 3-CD series in company with Nigel Kennedy’s performance of the Violin Concerto and Paul Tortelier’s of the Rococo Variations, an hour of extra music for around £1-£2 more. Is the extra music worth the small extra outlay? 

RB gave the Second Concerto a warm welcome – “a chance to come to terms with possibly the finest Tchaikovsky 2 ever – an object lesson both as an interpretation and as a recording.” I thoroughly concur with that judgement. 

He was slightly less enamoured of the Concert Fantasy and the First Concerto, where he found the acoustic too reverberant, too ‘swimmy’, especially in the Fantasy. The performance, too, he rated exciting and brilliant but, in a strongly competitive field, not a library version. 

Here I part company to some extent: I know what RB means when he calls the acoustic ‘swimmy’ and complains of some lost detail in the ornamentation of the Fantasy, but I hear this as akin to what one might experience in the concert hall. The recording of these two works does sometimes sound rather heavy, with some piano detail missing, but my reaction on hearing any concerto live is first to wonder where all the extra mid-range and bass detail came from, as compared with even the best reproduction equipment, then why the soloist sounds less clearly highlighted than on record. This approximates to what I hear on this first CD, with the piano credibly placed within the orchestral ambiance rather than on a sound-stage of its own. 

Sometimes I find that recordings which sound too bright on one of my set-ups sound more mellow on the other and vice versa. On this occasion I did find the first CD a little heavy on my Arcam/Monitor Gold Silver set-up but much brighter on my Marantz/Monitor Audio BR5 set-up in another room. 

I note that others are equally divided about the recording on this first CD between those who, like RB, hear rather too much resonance and those who, like me, find the recording natural. 

I thoroughly agree with RB about the Second Concerto, a work which needs powerful advocacy if it is not to outstay its welcome in its full version, as recorded here. Most other versions use the abridged Siloti version but Donohoe and Barshai make a thoroughly convincing case for the original, some ten minutes longer than the First Concerto. They are ably abetted by Nigel Kennedy and Stephen Isserlis in the second movement. The rosette awarded to this disc by the Penguin Guide when it first appeared was thoroughly deserved. Over the years I have tried various recordings and broadcast versions of this concerto but I have never found one to match this. The end of the first movement makes a real impression when performed as well as it is here. 

No complaints this time about the recording from anyone whose views I have read. RB was thoroughly satisfied with this second CD: “Not only is the sound picture sharper, stronger, closer, tactile and realistic but there is also an overwhelming sense of occasion.”. 

Donohoe and Barshai also make a convincing case for the Third Concerto. If the Second is something of a Cinderella among Tchaikovsky’s works, this must be one of her old rags. Donohoe and Barshai do their best to make it sound like her ball gown or the slipper by which the Prince identifies her. Not really glass– French verre – but a fur slipper – French vair. 

The Third Concerto is like the elephant in the room that no-one wants to mention. The notes in the booklet don’t refer to it, nor does RB in his review. It started life as a movement intended for the Seventh Symphony but was then rewritten with the piano part, a pleasant enough piece and well played, though few will buy the 3-CD set just to obtain it. Various attempts have been made to complete the Seventh Symphony but none have been as successful as Deryck Cooke’s completion of Mahler’s Tenth or Anthony Payne’s of Elgar’s Third. Bogatyryev’s attempt is available from Neeme Järvi on Chandos CHAN9130, coupled with the Third Concerto. Look out for the reissue of Simon Rattle’s highly-recommended second version of the Mahler on EMI Recommends 5 03420 2. His first version is still available and recommendable on CFP 5 85901 2. 

Those requiring just the piano works would be better to stick with the Gemini. For a little more they could try the two recent Scherbakov/Yablonsky Naxos CDs which have received strong recommendations from the reviewers: 8.557257 (Nos. 1 and 3) and 8.557824 (No.2 and Concert Fantasy). Paul Shoemaker thought the version of the Third Concerto careful but liked the First Concerto and praised the recording. Colin Clarke was more dismissive, but others, including Göran Forsling, reviewing the SACD version of this recording, have been much more complimentary. For a little more still, there is the 4-CD Virgin set of recordings by Mikhail Pletnev (5 62358 2, with the Pathétique Symphony and The Seasons). 

This EMI set is billed as the complete music for piano and orchestra, but it isn’t quite. A recent Danacord 2-CD set also contains the Andante and Finale, Taneyev’s orchestration of the second and third movements of the Third Concerto plus the recently-discovered Allegro in c minor. The one review which I have seen of this new set (Oleg Marshev and Owain Arwel Hughes on DACOCD586/7) offers a positive recommendation. 

If you already have a version of the First Concerto which you like - as you probably do - the Leonskaja/Masur CD of Nos. 2 and 3 on Apex at bargain price might provide all that you are looking for – 2564 61913-2, recommended by Tony Haywood. 

Nigel Kennedy’s account of the Violin Concerto opens the new, third disc. The first movement opens with solo playing so subdued that I wondered if this really could be Nigel Kennedy. It’s certainly heart-felt playing but so is that of Kyung-Wha Chung on my preferred version of this concerto. (See below.) At 19:49 Kennedy and Kamu take longer over this first movement than any other performers I have ever heard, though the conclusion of this movement is undeniably effective. In the other movements, too, they are not exactly the speediest performers. Their total time is three minutes longer than Chung and Previn and almost six minutes longer than Erick Friedman and Seiji Ozawa on one of those neglected recordings which BMG/RCA ought to restore to the catalogue - it last appeared on their Silver Seal label, a splendid bargain coupled with John Browning’s equally fine version of the First Piano Concerto. The expertise and quality of Kennedy’s playing cannot be denied and the recording is good, but I cannot think that this version will displace Chung or Friedman in my regular listening schedule. 

CD3 closes with Paul Tortelier’s account of the Rococo Variations. This is by far the oldest recording in the set and the only one which is not DDD. It might have been more appropriate to have used Steven Isserlis’s account of the original version of this work, since he makes such a distinguished contribution in the Second Piano Concerto. After all, we have just heard the version of the Violin Concerto by Nigel Kennedy, who also distinguishes himself in the Second Concerto. The Torteliers, père et fils, offer a decent version of the Variations, well recorded, though with the cello slightly upfront. After a rather hesitant start this version ends very well – a rousing conclusion to the disc. 

The Kennedy/Kamu version of the Violin Concerto is available on Classics for Pleasure 5 856192, with Chausson’s Poème at bargain price. Those wanting the Violin Concerto alone, however, have even better versions to choose from, even in the lower-price bracket. My first recommendation would have to be Kyung-Wha Chung, coupled with an equally fine version of the Sibelius Concerto on Decca 475 7734. At bargain price Joshua Bell comes highly recommended on Decca 475 6703, a 2-CD set with the Brahms and other concertos. 

Those looking for a version in SACD should compare Jonathan Woolf’s lukewarm review of the recent Julia Fischer account with the much more enthusiastic one by Ian Lace, who made it Recording of the Month (Pentatone PTC5186095). More recently Tim Perry also recommended the Fischer version in his review of the Naxos/Ilya Kaler recording (8.557690): he ended up thinking that one should buy both. 

For the Rococo Variations it has to be one of the Rostropovich versions: the 8-CD set on DG 477 6579 or coupled with the Dvořák Cello Concerto on 447 4132. 

A Double Decca, containing the three Piano Concertos (Postnikova/Rozhdestvensky) plus the Violin Concerto (Chung’s second version with Dutoit) offers a very attractive bargain. (448 107-2). 

This is a bit of a mixed blessing. Only CD2, containing Concertos Nos. 2 and 3, comes with a strong recommendation. The First Concerto, the Fantasy and the Rococo Variations will do very well but they are not quite in the Premier Division. Your view of the Violin Concerto will depend on the extent to which you are prepared to accept Kennedy’s unconventional tempi – I wasn’t. Perhaps the Gemini set of the piano works alone is a safer bet after all.

Brian Wilson

 

 


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