Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor op.23 (1875) [32:23]
Concert Fantasy in G op.56 (1885) [28:40]
Peter Katin (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra/Edric Cundell (Concerto)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Adrian Boult (Fantasia)
rec.11 May 1959 (Concerto), 17-19 February 1958 (Fantasia), Kingsway Hall, London

Tchaikovsky’s Concert Fantasy is certainly an unusual piece. For the first two-and-a-half minutes of the first movement – “Quasi rondo” – the orchestra has the upper hand, with the piano in a concertante role. Then follows a ten-minute solo for the piano, based partly on the themes already heard, partly on new ones. After which the orchestra returns to round the movement off with a recapitulation of the opening music. The second movement – “Contrastes” – alternates lyrical music with lively dance themes. Unusual or not, the result is imbued with Tchaikovsky’s personality and contains many typically touching melodies. It adds up to a very attractive two-movement concerto. Another recording that pairs it with the First Piano Concerto is that by Peter Donohoe and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Barshai.

It may seem perverse to start by discussing the conductor, but both Boult and Barshai set the tone for what is to come. Boult is not the first name that comes to mind as a Tchaikovsky conductor. I don’t know any of his recordings of the symphonies, not that there were many. Those who have his recordings of the ballet suites, originally set down for Readers’ Digest, will know that he was, at the very least, a superb conductor of a certain type of Tchaikovsky. So it is here. The opening melodies in the wind have a piquant charm as he points them and the whole initial paragraph takes on a fairy-tale atmosphere. The heavier moments retain a transparency of texture with the brass cavorting like ogres. Barshai, after a surprisingly weak opening gesture, has the wind present their themes more blandly, the tempo veers back and forth and the heavier textures become opaque.

Katin takes his cue from Boult, or maybe they simply saw Tchaikovsky the same way. He keeps the long central solo tautly in shape, his pianism clean and strong but retaining a certain elegance. Particularly memorable is the filigree right-hand figuration accompanying the theme in the left hand. Donohoe seeks a wider range of mood but the overall shape is less focused. Some may prefer the more obviously romantic approach of Donohoe but ultimately the music itself sounds finer as Katin and Boult present it.

Not unexpectedly, Donohoe and Barshai emphasize the contrasts of the second movement. However, in this case there seems less reason to prefer one over the other.

Turning to the evergreen First Piano Concerto, the conductor Edric Cundell is a shadowy figure. He obtained some success as a composer and succeeded Sir Landon Ronald as director of the Trinity College of Music. In this role he did a good deal of conducting with student forces. The present recording was the only one he made. Ensemble with the pianist is good, so he was evidently a competent musician at the very least. The orchestral episodes are well enough shaped.

Peter Katin’s playing is again clean and clear, technically well in command, strong where needed but also delicately poetic in the gentler moments. You may think I’m working myself up to an inevitable “but”. Actually, it depends what you want from Tchaikovsky. If you want shattering fireworks, heart-on-sleeve emotion, this may seem a bit small-scale to you. Personally, the only things I “miss” from Katin’s performance are things I’d rather not have anyway. At the most, the finale could have been slightly more energized. However, better this than the crude accents Barshai puts in the orchestral episodes.

Donohoe and Barshai are considerably slower, about three minutes slower in the first movement. I’ve nothing against this in itself, and Tchaikovsky’s indications seem to suggest he didn’t want the piece played too fast. The trouble is, the music stops altogether in several moments of transition. What is perhaps meant to be epic in the end seems only doleful and I lost patience with it.

If you want this pairing, then, Katin’s seems the clear choice. If you have a version, or several versions, of the First Concerto that you are very happy with and are wondering about the Fantasy, then there’s a conundrum.

The internet is a funny place. Here is Andrew Rose of Pristine Audio trying to make a living from careful digital transfers of out-of-copyright recordings. Go to a blog called The Music Parlour and you’ll find a range of similar recordings for free download. In particular, you’ll find a section called Pristine Classics. This offers, I suppose deliberately, a number of the same recordings as are to be found on Pristine Audio, but free. Not very sporting, but still, the downloads are there and they include the present Concert Fantasy (but not the Concerto). So if you go for this option, what do you get?

Basically, the Pristine Classics blogger tells it as it is. That is to say, you’ll hear what you’d hear if you had a fairly good copy of the CD and fairly good equipment to play it on. There’s quite a strong rumble – but no clicks or scratches – which might disturb if you listen on headphones. The two movements come as one track. Many readers will be able to make their own improvements before burning the download onto a CD.

Andrew Rose points out that these were excellent recordings in the first place and among the least interventionist transfers in his catalogue. From Pristine Audio you’ll get surfaces pretty well as silent as a CD original. Maybe Rose had a less worn copy of the LP in the first place, but some filtering has taken place, and here’s the trouble. The orchestra is more strident in fortes while the piano is slightly muffled. In quieter passages this is even quite attractive, but louder moments have more bloom in the less interventionist Pristine Classics version. In particular, Katin’s heavy chords are made, by Rose, to sound clumsily balanced whereas Pristine Classics reveals them not to have been so. In addition, the two run at fractionally different speeds, the Pristine Audio being slightly flatter and a few seconds longer. I’m not sure that too much need be made of this, and I haven’t the equipment to work out which of the two is right. Back in the days of the LP, and worse still the audio cassette, no two players ever ran at exactly the same speed and I think this is really too small a difference to affect our perception of the performance. The filtering chez Rose is a more serious matter for me and it is to the Pristine Classics version that I’ll return.

On the other hand, with no alternative transfer of the First Concerto for comparison I enjoyed Rose’s transfer and accepted it as a fairly good recording for its date. If you particularly want Katin in the First Concerto, however, I should point out that he recorded it again about ten years later for Classics for Pleasure with the LPO under Pritchard. Logically, this would have his more mature thoughts, more recent recording and, possibly, a bigger “name” on the rostrum, though I have no complaints about Cundell. However, mine is a logical consideration only since I haven’t heard the later performance. It’s not currently available and, since the present-day Classics for Pleasure has put out the Donohoe versions, I suppose they’re unlikely to reissue the Katin. It will not be out of copyright, and so legally available for the Pristines and other bloggers, till about 2020.

Setting aside these questions, then, we have brilliant, technically commanding but also poetic playing from Katin and a particularly strong orchestral performance from Boult in the Fantasy.

Christopher Howell

Brilliant, technically commanding but also poetic playing from Katin and a particularly strong orchestral performance from Boult in the Fantasy.