American Piano Concertos
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 38 (1962) [27:40]
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1926) [15:39]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Concerto in F major for Piano and Orchestra (1925) [31:53]
Xiayin Wang (piano)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Peter Oundjian
rec. 11 February 2013, 29-30 April 2013, Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, Scotland
CHANDOS CHSA 5128 [75:44]
Chinese-born pianist Xiayin Wang has released a number of critically acclaimed recordings on Naxos and Chandos. These include albums of solo piano works by Rachmaninoff, Scriabin and Earl Wild. The present album, her third for Chandos, is her first concerto disc. She turns to completely different repertoire by presenting together for the first time the piano concertos of three of the most dominant American composers of the 20th century: Samuel Barber, Aaron Copland and George Gershwin.
Wang opens with the Barber, which was composed more than 25 years after the other two concertos on this album. John Browning, for whom the concerto was originally intended, premiered the work with the Boston Symphony in 1962 and subsequently released a landmark recording with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra in 1964 for CBS. Since then, there have been fewer than ten recordings of the concerto by artists including Browning (who recorded it again for RCA/Sony with Slatkin in 1991), Tedd Joselson (ASV, 1995), Abbott Ruskin (Vox, 1995), Jon Kimura Parker (Telarc, 1997), Stephen Prutsman (Naxos, 2002), and Giampolo Nuti (Stradivarius, 2011). Wang’s recording is the first to be released in the hybrid SACD format.
In this narrow field, the Browning/Szell recording, in spite of its age, has been my gold standard. He plays with an unmatched intensity and ferocity and is perfectly backed by Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. Regrettably, Wang and the RSNO do not come close to delivering the nervous, raw energy set forth by Browning/Szell in the outer movements. In the second movement, however, Wang’s lyrical playing is particularly moving. Oundjian and the RSNO, especially the wind soloists, provide a sensitive accompaniment.
Wang and the RSNO next take on the Copland, which is in two movements representing what Copland considered to be the two basic moods of jazz: "the slow blues and the snappy number". Interestingly, this work was critically panned following its premiere in 1927 with Copland as soloist and Koussevitsky directing the Boston Symphony. It was to be revived by Leonard Bernstein and pianist Leo Smit in 1946. While Wang and the RSNO give a technically strong performance, they are again unable to convey the same excitement heard in the recording with the composer himself at the piano, accompanied by Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic (CBS, 1965). It’s a rare opportunity to hear Copland’s artistry, and one can get a glimpse of how he intended his own work to sound. Both the piano and the orchestra are in sync here and deliver a dynamic, big-sounding reading characteristic of the Bernstein-Copland collaborations. Just listen to how Copland accentuates the dance rhythms in the second movement with his sharp attack at the piano. You just don’t hear the same type of articulation and rhythmic precision from Wang on this recording.
The Gershwin Concerto is clearly the most well known of these three and perhaps the most accessible. It’s infectious - like the Copland, highly rhythmic and infused with jazz elements. I was hoping that Wang would be more successful here. Unfortunately, as in her interpretations of the two preceding concertos, what is again lacking is pizzazz. In the first and third movements in which proper articulation is critical to maintaining rhythmic interest, accents are simply missing. To make matters worse, the playing of the RSNO lacks the intensity needed to give this concerto life and spontaneity. It leaves much to be desired. Just listen to a handful of classic or recent recordings of the concerto: Earl Wild with the Boston Pops (RCA/Sony, 1961), Philippe Entremont with the Philadelphia (RCA/Sony, 1971), Andre Previn and the LSO (EMI, 1971), Jon Nakamatsu and the Rochester Philharmonic (Harmonia Mundi, 2007), or Freddy Kempf with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra (BIS, 2012), and you’ll see what I mean. There is an undeniable vitality to these other recordings that unfortunately is not matched on this current album.
While I highly commend Ms. Wang for compiling these three American piano concertos onto a single recording, I wish that I could give it a warmer welcome. Wang has made some great recordings, but I regret to say that this is not one of them. Go with Browning/Szell for Barber and Copland/Bernstein for Copland. Take your pick with the Gershwin.
Albert Lam

Previous reviews: Leslie Wright ~~ Simon Thompson (Recording of the Month)

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