The three American piano concertos on this disc were all influenced
to greater or lesser degrees by jazz and represent the best of the genre in
twentieth-century America. I do not think they have ever appeared together
on a CD before, so this release is perhaps unique in having them all
together. If only the performances were as remarkable as the programme,
there would indeed be something worth celebrating.
Xiayin Wang, who completed her studies at the Shanghai Conservatory
before coming to New York in 1997, where she received accolades for her
performances at Carnegie Hall, is an accomplished pianist. Her solo
performances on CD have garnered considerable praise. However, this first
concerto disc is a disappointment. Whether it’s the lack of chemistry
between her and the conductor and orchestra, or that she was simply not
ready to record these works, it is hard to say. Technically, her pianism is
fine, but there is little fire or pizzazz here. All one needs do is to turn
to the truly outstanding accounts of the three concertos.
In the case of the Barber, no one has equalled, let alone surpassed,
John Browning’s premiere recording with George Szell and the Cleveland
Orchestra recorded in 1964. Even Browning when he re-recorded the concerto
with Leonard Slatkin and the Saint Louis Symphony lacked the dynamism of his
first account. Strangely enough, that first recording to my knowledge was
never released in the US in CD format, but is available in the UK along with
definitive performances of other Barber works, including Isaac Stern and
Leonard Bernstein’s wonderful performance of the Violin Concerto (review
). The sound on that disc is beginning to show its
age, but the performances are ageless.
As to the short jazzy concerto by Copland, again Bernstein with the
composer at the piano is the one to beat. In modern sound, Lorin Hollander
with Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony are also very impressive. There
is much competition for Gershwin’s Concerto in F, including
André Previn as pianist and conductor (review
, Garrick Ohlsson with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting (review
, and the classic Earl Wild/Arthur Fiedler recording (review
Wang and Oundjian come nowhere near any of the above, but are best
in the slow movements of the Barber and Gershwin. Their laid-back approach
works better there than in the outer sections of the two concertos. The
second movement of the Gershwin is a case in point with an especially fine
trumpet solo that seems just right, bringing out the blues without going
over the top as is sometimes the case. Greater presence in the recording
itself may have helped, too, but whatever the reason, for the most part,
these performances fail to catch fire.
I listened to the disc with my usual two-channel setup, so perhaps
surround sound would create a greater impression. However, I am convinced
that the problem lies largely with the performers and not the recording.
The Chandos presentation is, as usual, classy, with a booklet that
includes good notes and a number of photographs. Unless you want everything
the pianist has recorded or have to have this particular programme on a
single disc I would take a pass on this one.