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
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
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 –
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
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
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.
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.