Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
CD 1
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23 (Original Version, 1875) [35:00]
Concert Fantasy in G, Op. 56 [28:52]
Alternate ending, Concert Fantasy, Mvt. I [4:44]
CD 2
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G, Op. 44 [42:08]
Piano Concerto No. 3 in E flat, Op. 75 [15:36]
Jerome Lowenthal (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra/Sergiu Comissiona
rec. 31 May-1 June 1989 (Opp. 23, 56), 5-6 April 1987 (Opp. 44, 75), Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London
budget price
BRIDGE RECORDS 9301A/B [68:36 + 57:44]

When this set arrived in the mail, I expected it to be a curiosity, for collectors only. Red type on the front points out that these are “original versions” of Tchaikovsky’s three piano concertos, intentionally omitting the edits and revisions he made over the course of his lifetime. Would this prove to be a gimmick or a stimulating musical adventure? I was happy to learn that the latter is the case: these are warm, lyrical performances of the three concertos and Concert Fantasy. Whether or not you want to hear the ‘original versions’ (and the differences are so limited that it is hardly more than a curiosity), this set of Tchaikovsky’s complete works for piano and orchestra will afford much pleasure.

The new texts, receiving premiere recordings, are as follows: the First Piano Concerto is given in its original state, before the edits suggested to Tchaikovsky by various concert pianists; the Second Concerto is given in full, restoring even the tiny cuts sanctioned by recent performers like Konstantin Scherbakov (on Naxos); the Concert Fantasy’s first movement is delivered both in the common version and with a five-minute ‘alternate ending’. But the joys of finding differences between the ‘original versions’ recorded here and the ones we all know so well are rather limited. The only real differences are prudent edits Tchaikovsky made later on in his life at the suggestion of various pianists, deleting a few seconds of unnecessary but interesting music from the finale of the First Concerto, shortening the ending of the Second Concerto’s slow movement, revising the piano parts somewhat, and simplifying orchestrations. Only one major change will immediately strike listeners here, but it’s a big one: the First Concerto’s legendary opening is not at all what we are used to, those titanic piano chords replaced by quiet, sweeping rolling arpeggios that are all-too-easily engulfed in the orchestral accompaniment. It is obvious that, here at least, Tchaikovsky’s second thoughts were superior to his first.

But if the trumpeted ‘original versions’ are inferior to the revised editions, what of it? These are still excellent performances! Jerome Lowenthal (b. 1932) is a keyboard poet who prefers lyricism and elegance to raw virtuosity. He is a pianist so effortlessly talented that he does not draw attention to himself but to the music, and in that mindset he has a soulmate in conductor Sergiu Comissiona (1928-2005), who leads the London Symphony Orchestra in a lively dialogue with the soloist.

Highlights here are many: Lowenthal’s poetic work in all the slow movements, his clear-headed approach to the first movement of the First Concerto, the gorgeous violin and cello solos in the Second (courtesy violinist Michael Davis and cellist Douglas Cummings), and the excellent pacing of the Second Concerto’s finale, which is exciting and extravagantly cheerful without resorting to the breakneck speeds at which Scherbakov dispatches the movement. True, in some of the most difficult cascades of notes Lowenthal’s fingers sometimes lose their way — in the Second Concerto’s titanic first-movement cadenzas, some of the chords go awry — but these miscues never become obvious or shocking.

These are reissues of Arabesque recordings from the 1980s (Z6611; Z6583); conductor Comissiona has since passed away, but Lowenthal is still going strong. The recordings sound very good, although, exactly like the Scherbakov albums on Naxos, the Second Concerto suffers from an odd problem in which the piano and orchestra sound as if they were recorded in separate acoustics. I only noticed this on headphones, however, and it was only a curiosity, not a problem.

Surprisingly, there are not too many complete sets of Tchaikovsky’s music for piano and orchestra, especially after we discard the sets (like Emil Gilels’) which contain needlessly cut versions of the Second Piano Concerto. The ones that come to my mind are Peter Donohoe’s traversal with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Rudolf Barshai, on EMI, and Konstantin Scherbakov’s accounts on Naxos, with the Russian Philharmonic and Dmitry Yablonsky.

Maybe, compared to the competition, Lowenthal’s pianism is lacking the last bit of technical perfection of a Konstantin Scherbakov or, in the First Concerto, the individuality of a Yevgeny Sudbin or a Martha Argerich. But Lowenthal offers his own rewards, not least of them fantastic liner-notes he penned himself. The performances are uniformly enjoyable, in a warm and good-natured way, with excellent contributions by the London Symphony; the two CDs sell for the price of just one - and can be had from American online shops for as cheaply as US$12. And even if you have a set or two of these works already, the curiosity factor of hearing Tchaikovsky’s original thoughts will carry weight; the alternate ending to the first half of the Concert Fantasy alone represents nearly five minutes of first class music which, for now, cannot be heard anywhere else.

Brian Reinhart