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Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Complete Works for Piano and Orchestra
CD 1:
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, op. 23 (1875, rev. 1879, 1889) [36:18]
Allegro in C minor for Piano and Strings (1863-4) [2:30]
Piano Concerto No. 3 in E flat, op. 75 (1892-3) [16:20]
(orch. Taneyev) Andante and Finale in B flat/E flat, op. 79 (1893) [23:29]
CD 2:
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G, op. 44 (1880) [45:15]*
Concert Fantasia in G, op. 56 (1884) [30:17]
Oleg Marshev (piano); *Alexander Zeiher (violin); *Vincent Stadlmaeier (cello)
Aalborg Symphony Orchestra/Owain Arwel Hughes
rec. Symfonien,
Aalborg, Denmark, 15-16 November 2001 (Concerto No. 1), 27-30 August 2002 (Concertos Nos. 2, 3, Andante and Finale), 9-13 September 2002 (Concert Fantasia, Allegro)
DANACORD DACOCD586-7 [78:49 + 75:49]

Experience Classicsonline

I thought it’d make a nice change to start with a pæan – or at least a partial pæan – for the booklet note. Running to nigh on five closely-packed pages, David Fanning’s essay is a right riveting read. Rarely will you find a composer’s relationship to a musical genre better established, or his strengths and weaknesses more cogently illuminated. Aye, and that’s the rub – unlike many a booklet note this is neither deadpan description, nor fan-club fodder, nor a hard-sell P.R. job, but a considered, informed, perceptive and distinctly objective appraisal. 

For example, we’re always being told about Rubinstein’s famous condemnation of the First Concerto, but how often does the commentator question the reliability of the reportage – the only account of the incident comes from Tchaikovsky himself – or go on to examine it from Rubinstein’s viewpoint? Make no mistake, this is “warts and all” stuff. 

In scraping off the encrusted cosmetics David paints a picture that is more realistic than we’re accustomed to, yet, in apparently contrary consequence, he thereby renders Tchaikovsky’s achievements all the more endearing. My only beef is that he finishes on a rather down-beat note, a violation of the critic’s cardinal rule that could easily have been avoided by only a fairly minor tweak.

There you go! I’ve just gone and done the self-same thing myself – see what I mean? Right, on to the main business. Of the First Concerto, that “warhorse di tutti warhorses”, my venerable and rather dog-eared 1998 edition of the R.E.D Book lists over 100 alternatives. I dread to think how many more have appeared since. There are considerably fewer – a “mere” two dozen or so apiece – of the other two concerti.

For those who favour integral interpretations there are several sets comprising all three concerti, generally coupled with Tchaikovsky’s substantial – and aptly titled – Concert Fantasy. One of these last is the set I have lodged in the bosom of my CD shelves, that of Donohoe/Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Barshai (currently available on EMI Gemini 5855402, 2 CDs), of which more anon.

This Danacord issue, though, is a much rarer bird. It’s the first – and, for the time being, only – single pianist compilation of Tchaikovsky’s entire output of piano concertante works. Alright, the extra bits aren’t exactly “lost masterpieces rediscovered” but, even so, they will provide food for thought to anyone seriously enamoured of Tchaikovsky’s greater contributions to the genre.

If you type Oleg Marshev’s name into the MWI search page, you’ll find enough reading to keep you out of mischief for a good week. So, all I’ll say here is that Marshev knows his onions well enough to give anybody a run for their money, and that his considered approach to the music he plays is at variance with the prides of young lions ever hell-bent on impressing us with their god-like talents.

Many of this ilk might well dismiss Tchaikovsky’s piddling little Allegro for Piano and Strings out of hand. David Fanning is perhaps a teensy bit unjust in referring to, “. . . the restricted vocabulary of harmony and gesture, the even more modest grasp of form . . .” I happily go along with the “vocabulary” part but, let’s face it, a playing time of just two and a half minutes leaves precious little room for any sort of fancy formal footwork, doesn’t it? However, that’s not really the point; the particular fascination of this little piece is that it portends virtually nothing of what was to come!

To his credit, Marshev resists the temptation to just “get it over with”. Interpreting what David calls “clumpiness” as an expression of naïve, youthful vigour, he bangs out the theme with all the gusto of a pub pianist. However, he also has a care for the calmer episodes, and lingers just nicely long enough over the wistful moment prior to the clumping coda. Hughes, otherwise limited to steering his ASO strings through chains of chuntering and canonic echoes, seizes the sole opportunity offered to the cellos, a broadened phrase of the main theme which is the one moment that perhaps might be construed as portentous.

Now, let’s turn to the main events. You know, sometimes I feel so sorry for the First Concerto. This has been done, and oft-times done to death, by every pianist you can mention, along with all the others that you’ve never even heard of – and even, I shouldn’t wonder, the occasional over-ambitious pub pianist.

What was once a formidable challenge, taken up only by the pianistic crème de la crème, now seems to be something on which every aspirant feels obliged to cut his milk teeth. We can bang on all we like about “artists re-interpreting works for a new generation” but the plain fact is that, for the most part, it’s all been done before, somewhere in all those reams of recordings. Really, these days all we’re getting is a game of virtuoso leap-frog, whilst the Spirit of Insight rarely, rarely cometh.

If you’re starting to suspect that I’m playing “John the Baptist” to Marshev’s “Jesus Christ”, let me prick your bubble right now. Regretfully, Marshev is only human. Instead of divine revelation, what he brings to this overworked work – and indeed to all the music in this issue – is that “considered approach” I mentioned earlier, and which I discussed in my review of his Liszt Piano Concerti (paragraph 4 onwards). At this point, a broad-brush comparison with Donohoe is, I think, in order.

One of the great virtues of Donohoe and Barshai is their reliability, by which I mean that they do everything very well indeed, whilst studiously avoiding the sorts of thing that (a) in a live performance make your ears sit up but (b) on repeated hearings end up driving you batty. That’s not to suggest, you understand, that there’s anything even remotely mediocre about this set. Quite the contrary. Although none of the performances is likely to send you into transports of ecstasy every time you hear it – that way lies not enlightenment but Pavlov’s dog – every hearing of any of them brings that pleasurable glow of re-acquaintance with an old friend. To put it crudely, this is a set you could live with until the cows come home.

In their different way, Marshev and Hughes manage to give me much the same glow. The differences between the two are those of character or, perhaps more precisely, temperament. How best to describe this? I could say that Donohoe, in the finest, tried-and-trusted English manner, keeps his front foot to the line of the ball and plays his elegant strokes with a dead-straight bat. By the same token Marshev, not being English, is free to indulge in some relatively fancy footwork and chance his arm a bit. It’s important to note that this is not the same as saying that Marshev takes risks; his eagle eye remains fixed firmly on that all-important ball.

The upshot is that, by comparison, Marshev’s playing sounds more volatile, more “off the cuff”. The benefit is that you get a recording that imparts something of that live performance frisson, but doesn’t end up driving you batty. Of course I don’t believe, not for one second, that this is really “off the cuff”. Neither do I believe that it is easy for a performer to simulate spontaneity. Yet – uncomfortably aware as I am that I could be fully one hundred percent wrong – that is the impression that Marshev intends.

In keeping with his “considered” approach, Marshev judiciously balances opposing factors. Structural coherence moderates spontaneity, clarity of articulation moderates animal excitement – whether it be of velocity, or volume, or both together – whilst love and respect for the music take precedence over virtuosic selfishness. All basic stuff, I’d think, but all of it oft-times disdained by the aforementioned young lions, in their eagerness to claw their way to the top of today’s overcrowded musical marketplace.

Time for a bit of substantiation. There are places where plenty of pianists take off like bats out of hell, but Marshev doesn’t – and neither does Donohoe, for that matter. However, rather than just giving the game of virtuoso leap-frog a wide berth, Marshev is busy creating elbow room for specific purposes. In the First Concerto, he nudges the dotted rhythm of the first movement’s first subject, giving it a cute little lilt, he teases the second movement’s central episode, making it sparkle and flash, and he injects a splendid spring into the step of the finale’s first subject. It works the other way, too. In the Second Concerto, by keeping things moving along Marshev renders the opening movement’s second subject all the more wistful, whilst he infuses the second movement’s romantic theme with a touch of charming caprice.

In some performances of these concerti there are places where I have found myself drumming my fingers, not to the rhythm of the music but in impatience. I am ashamed (almost!) to admit that one such is the aforementioned opening movement where Marshev argues so cogently that I find myself carried with him through the movement’s longueurs. And said longueurs, I might add, no longer added up to longueurs.

I feel a bit less ashamed in the case of the Concert Fantasia’s cadenza, a gargantuan effusion occupying over half of the movement, and forming a “trio” flanked by “scherzo” sections, identical twins à la Bruckner. As the cadenza proceeded, I gradually became aware that Marshev was tautly controlling the “long view” but, it seemed, continually modulating the details with a host of neat little touches, thus cunningly creating a semblance of extemporisation. Yet, in those flanking sections, I thought that Marshev seemed curiously reticent, playing more like a member of the orchestra than a proper soloist.

This puzzled me until, in what I like to think of as a flash of inspiration, I conjectured, “Perhaps that’s what Tchaikovsky intended when he wrote it – the piano’s modest obbligato rôle in the outer sections by contrast magnifies the already massive cadenza.” The effect is as though, in a musical show, a member of the chorus had stepped forward, belted out a sensational show-stopper, then calmly stepped back into line. Wouldn’t this make more sense than the usual scenario in which, for reasons best known to itself, the big, bloated cadenza has – like Monty Python’s giant boot – squashed flat the movement’s entire development section? Well, Marshev seems to be thinking along those lines. In the sighing coda of the Second Concerto’s second movement, Marshev pulls a similar trick: he blends right into the orchestral texture, and it sounds magical.

If I’ve given you the impression that Marshev is simply soft-pedalling everything, then rest assured that he isn’t, not by a long chalk. His big guns are as big as anybody else’s, it’s just that he’s less trigger-happy. For instance, he attacks the aforementioned cadenza’s Grand Climax with sufficient over-indulgence to satisfy the hedonistic lust of any confirmed piano-phile. Again, in the Second Concerto, with his jolly phrasing the finale’s main subject is as bright, brittle and rollicking as anyone could wish, and he brings off the first movement’s hugely virtuosic cadenza with such devastating panache that, for the moment, I imagined I might be lying about that “considered approach”.

Unless you are one who insists on nothing less than the plushest velour-upholstered strings, you will find the ASO and the redoubtable Mr. Hughes to be highly sympathetic accomplices. I don’t and I do, respectively! True, the strings are a tad on the slender side, and true, they can sound slightly scratchy up high but, as I’ve noted on numerous occasions, slender strings are generally more supple and athletic. Then again, as I’ve come to expect from so-called “provincial” bands, their players manage to preserve so much more personality.

In fact, the strings do rather well. For instance in the Second Concerto, at the opening of the second movement, Hughes draws from them some delicious phrasing, with the soli both silky-toned and throbbing with emotion. A bit later, at around 5:30 or so, the string phrases have a distinct aroma of Elgar. I did wonder if it was simply that I’d noticed it, but then, mindful of my growing overall impression, I started to suspect that it’d been deliberately pointed up by Hughes. Still later, a “piano trio” emerges. This sounds delightful, with the string soli – well earning their booklet credits – coiling over a rolling and skipping piano, at once fleet and sedate, like sailboats gliding through rippling water.

Regarding the start of the Third Concerto, my curt jotting says it all: “fruity bassoons”! At the start of the zestful third subject the strings shine again, spitting out their staccati like pea-shooters in overdrive. I just love this chirpy little motive! Sadly, it’s come and gone in the blink of an eye. What a shame that Tchaikovsky didn’t treat it to a bit more of the invention he lavished on The Little Oak Stick. Still, there’s some compensation here when, in the development, the strings positively drool over the second subject.

Splendid as the horns and brass are, the woodwind are a particular delight. More than once I noted the charming contributions of the first oboe, whose tone is distinctly nasal and reedy. Yes, I know, those adjectives usually imply “awful”! Well, ask yourself this: if you squeeze out all the “nasal” and “reedy” from an oboe’s sound, what have you left? Something very pure, very sweet – and also very anodyne and anonymous. That’s because “nasal” and “reedy” are part of the instrument’s character. In my opinion, the elite of the modern oboe fraternity have squeezed out far too much of it. Not so the ASO’s first oboe, in whose tone still moves the spirit of the great god Pan. I’m tempted – only “tempted”, mind – to add: “Awesome!”.

Yet, the real joy of these woodwind has to be the way they are deployed in the overall ensemble. As early as the First Concerto’s second subject I was impressed by the extraordinarily fine blending of woodwind with strings/piano textures, which produced an uncommonly sweet and tender effect. The more I listened, the more impressed I became. Accustomed as I am, rightly or wrongly, to regarding Tchaikovsky’s “symphonic” orchestration as “poster-paint vivid”, I was transfixed by the stream of subtle touches of colour that paraded past my ears. These had always been there, of course, but until now I’d never really noticed them – hence the debt of gratitude I owe to Owain Arwel Hughes, who brought them so seductively into my ken.

Now, what about the bulk of the “new” stuff, the two “missing” movements of the Third Concerto? Well, for a start the stuff is not exactly “new”, as these movements derive from the same source as the extant, single-movement concerto. That source is the abortive symphony that Bogatyryov much later licked into something like shape, and dubbed Symphony No. 7. Having made a really good job of “concerto-ising” the symphony’s more or less complete first movement, Tchaikovsky tried to repeat the feat with the sketchier second and fourth movements. He gave it up as a bad job. After his death, Taneyev prepared performing editions of the largely unorchestrated drafts.

Guess what? They sound very good! However, here I’m referring solely to Taneyev’s skilful and imaginative orchestration. The problem is that, in exercising his orchestral art, Taneyev disregarded niceties such as emulating Tchaikovsky’s. Why, I don’t know. He had the entire first movement as his template and guide, yet he all but ignored it. But this isn’t the reason that the results are less than convincing. The blame for that lies with the piano writing – which is all Tchaikovsky’s own work.

Unbelievable? Well, disbelief is dispelled by experience. Of all the music in this set, the nearest match for the Andante’s piano style is the Allegro, written a whole lifetime earlier. I had listened to this Andante before hearing the Second Concerto. Of this latter’s second movement, which is also an andante, I noted, “What a difference from the Andante of ‘Concerto No. 3’! This is about as long, but passionate and involving where the other is, comparatively, decidedly wan and listless.”

I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Tchaikovsky had been bored to tears with the sheer slog involved in adapting a symphonic movement – and a “failed” one, at that – for a concertante purpose. The music seems to confirm it: much of the time the piano part consists of simple, “block” chordal accompaniment, a far cry from the purposeful reticence of the Concert Fantasia. In view of the consistently high standard of the other performances in the set, I can only conclude that the players make the best they can of the composer’s “bad job”.

Life is full of surprises, isn’t it? I got one such when the Finale emerged from my loudspeakers: “Stomping start! Wow, this is more like it.” Marshev and the ASO, laying into the vigorous theme with gusto, created a sound for sore ears. The second subject was every bit as catchy – played by the woodwind with piano accompaniment, it sounded like nothing other than a jolly proletarian marching song. Sadly, this all soon ran out of steam, with whole swadges of the movement coming across as academic note-spinning, uninspired – and uninspiring.

My heart was therefore lifted by Marshev’s cadenza, which disgorged a whopping build-up to the “traditional” Big Tune treatment of the second subject. Belted out by a liquid, golden, shining trumpet, underpinned by “machine-gunning” horns, it made a thoroughly lovely noise. But, there was something missing. What? Ah, yes – shouldn’t there have been a piano, pounding away like billio? Well, believe it or not, there wasn’t.

I must be careful. Taken in isolation, my comments on the Andante, and to a lesser degree the Finale, could give the impression that these pieces are rubbish. To some extent they are – but only by comparison with undisputed masterpieces like the First and Second Concerti. Nevertheless, provided that the listener doesn’t overburden them with expectations, they are pleasant enough. However, there is more, because here there is also sorrow. This sorrow is not in the music itself, but in our apparent eavesdropping on a great composer, struggling against his own inadequate materials in a vain attempt to regain his former glory.

The recorded sound quality is pretty good, with one small reservation. Generally, the performers are set in a warm, natural-sounding perspective, where the instruments that are further back do indeed sound to be further away. However, the strings seem to occupy a different, slightly hollow-sounding (“bathroomy”) acoustic. Consequently, their relative level says that they are close by, but their ambience insists that they are much further off. This might jar the ears of a few listeners, but only those whose ears happen to be especially sensitive to the conflicting inputs. I noticed it – obviously! – but I found that I soon “forgot” about it. It is by no means a pronounced effect, and – N.B! – is apparent mainly because the overall sound quality is so high as to expose it.

In the booklet, the track details of the Concert Fantasia’s first movement have been garbled. Otherwise this issue maintains the superb standard we have come to expect of Danacord. It continues the attractive “house style” associated with this series of Russian piano concertos. This style is made doubly attractive by the use of atmospheric paintings for the covers, which is far preferable to the all-but-ubiquitous – and for some companies mandatory? – pin-up pictures of seemingly self-serving soloists. Danacord does include photographs of the pianist and conductor, but puts them inside the booklet, right where they belong.

Should you rush – or even just stroll – out and buy this set? With so many factors clamouring for attention, that could be a tricky question. Let’s try to break it down a bit, into some not necessarily independent categories. Maybe you haven’t already got these works? No, seriously – new shoots are always coming up in any garden! Maybe money is no object? In either case, you’d be buying a set with the enviable combination of solid dependability and imaginative interpretation.

At the other extreme, maybe you feel your needs for Tchaikovsky piano concertos are well-enough served by what you already have? Ah, now that’s the tricky one, to which my answer would have to be, “Then why are you reading this?” Presumably, then, you’re not entirely happy, or otherwise prospecting for a change. With such a vast array of alternatives from which to choose, this is no mean undertaking and, almost by definition, one on which authoritative – and comprehensive – advice will be hard to come by.

I don’t profess any such authority, but I can say this: you could do worse – much worse – than this one. If it lacks the last ounce of incandescence, it is for the best of all possible reasons: that “last ounce of incandescence” has been re-invested in a whole host of deft interpretative touches, thus securing longevity of interest through repeated hearings. In other words, a lifetime of fascination beats a one-off burn-up, hands down, every time.

Maybe you’re a congenital completist, or simply enjoy the luxury of having everything at your fingertips? Maybe you’re a Tchaikovsky scholar, or a Tchaikovsky fanatic, or just intrigued by “new” discoveries? In these cases, you’re bound by Hobson’s choice, but at least you can take solace in the fact that there is also something “new” to hear in the well-known works.

Generally speaking, when something “new” by an established master is unearthed, our first thought is, “What can it tell us about how the composer developed?” In this instance, we find one tiddly little bit of juvenilia that tells us virtually nothing about how Tchaikovsky developed, and nearly 25 minutes of music from the opposite pole of his career that tells us much the same. Our initial disappointment is – or should be – short-lived because instead, and much more unusually, we learn something about a composer’s path to failure. If anything, this affords us still greater fascination, even if it is of the morbid variety.

That all the performances and recordings have a great deal to commend them is the icing on the cake – with David Fanning’s essay as a tasty cherry.

Paul Serotsky



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