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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Les Préludes (1854) [15:08]
Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (1839-47?) [10:23]
Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat (1849) [19:23]
Tasso (1854) [19:24]
Hooshik Hwang (piano)
Russian Federal Orchestra/Vakhtang Jordania
rec. Great Hall of the Tchaikovsky Conservatory, January 2003; Radio Palace Hall, Moscow, February 2000 (Preludes)
ANGELOK1 CD-7752 [61:08]

The fall of the Soviet Union led to a wholesale reorganization of orchestral life in Russia, as state-sponsored ensembles were superseded and supplemented by privately organized ones. As numerous players fled to better-paying gigs in the West, however, the newer groups, beset by technical problems, became spotty and inconsistent; only Mikhail Pletnev's hand-picked Russian National Orchestra stood above the generally mediocre level.
 
I'd imagined that the Russian Federal Orchestra was the old USSR Symphony revised and edited, but apparently it is a "new" orchestra - organized in 1993, according to Angelok1's booklet. If the present program is any indication, it's one of the better ones, with no obvious weaknesses in any department. The woodwinds, including the usually woolly oboe, are liquid and expressive. The brass choir is secure and focused; trumpets have shed the heavy vibratos of yore, while the hint of watery vibrato on the principal horn will evoke a pleasant nostalgia in veteran listeners. The string sections could use an extra desk or two, but the sonority is warm and singing. Under Vakhtang Jordania, discipline is reasonably good, though there can be confusion when multiple elements chime in on different beats, as at 15:16 of Tasso.
 
Unfortunately, in a competitive catalogue, none of these performances is quite up to snuff. The tone-poems come off best, benefiting from Jordania's ear for detail. The introduction to Les Préludes is clear, flowing and unsettled, while the body of the piece has a nice surge, even if the violins' dutiful chugging tends to go limp at phrase-endings. Tasso achieves an appropriate epic breadth. The strings at the start sound posh. The build-up beginning at 2:00 sounds tentative, but the clarinet is dark and brooding, and the cello solo at 5:30 is ardent. The dancing theme is shapely when the reeds take it over at 10:43. In both works, the woodwind principals offer many lovely moments, though the patch at 10:30 of Les Préludes should have been redone: the flute's first note is missing, and one of the oboe staccatos doesn't speak.
 
The weighty introduction of the Hungarian Rhapsody stops just short of portentousness; the rest of the piece is rousing. The conductor handles transitional passages with grace, though the tempo uptick at 8:11 causes a brief muddle.
 
The Piano Concerto, alas, is a damp squib. Hooshik Hwang maintains a fully supported tone even in running passages - though they could be more brilliantly articulated - but the treble end of his instrument doesn't ring out as it should. The first two movements are solid rather than inspiring. In the finale, some figurations sparkle, while others sound merely cautious; the wrong note at 17:05, which wouldn't matter in a more dynamic reading, is the final nail in the coffin. Now and then, one senses the uneasy orchestra wanting to move things along.
 
The reproduction is colourful, but orchestral motifs in the concerto tend to disappear behind the piano, as with the cellos at 8:12 and the feathery violins at 12:11.
 
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.
 
See also reivew by John Leeman

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