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American Piano Concertos
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Piano Concerto [27:40]
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Piano Concerto [15:39]
George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Piano Concerto [31:53]
Xiayin Wang (piano)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Peter Oundjian
rec. Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, February and April 2013
CHANDOS CHSA5128 [75:44]

When Peter Oundjian took over as Musical Director of the RSNO in September 2012, he had big shoes to fill. Stéphane Denève, his immediate predecessor, did an enormous amount to improve the orchestra’s reputation and to transform their sound. His calling card was the French repertoire, particularly the likes of Debussy, Ravel and Roussel. His work with the orchestra led to Richard Morrison of The Times dubbing the RSNO “the finest French orchestra north of Calais”. For the understandable reason of avoiding the comparison, the orchestra has largely avoided French music since Denève’s departure. Oundjian hasn’t staked a claim to any particular repertoire in its place - his tastes are fairly eclectic - but a pair of concerts in the 2012-13 season made me wonder whether the American classics were going to be his calling card. The 2013-14 season has made me think that probably won’t be the case, but that’s of little consequence when you’re presented with a disc of such high quality as this.
This disc makes a fascinating traversal of the 20th Century American piano concerto, containing the three greatest examples (surely) from composers working in very different styles. The Copland was new to me, and I was interested in the way the composer combines his styles, the clarion clarity of opening quickly subsiding into something more reflective and lyrical that remains for the rest of the movement. The first movement is harmonic and broadly tonal, but the melodies take a bit of effort and don’t sail over the texture with the effortlessness of, say, Gershwin. The second movement really takes off, though, giving a much more colourful, sometimes zany ride that at times was a little reminiscent of a cartoon soundtrack. It’s very much a cooperation piece. In fact, the piano sounds more like an instrument of the orchestra than a soloist per se, integrated into the texture and very rarely standing out.
Barber’s concerto, on the other hand, is much more angular than the lyricism for which he is most famous. He experiments with dissonance in a really rather surprising way, but he retains a distance from it, too. The concerto was, after all, written in 1962 at the same time as some of the most challengingly dissonant European music of the 20th century and, next to those, Barber sounds much more accessible. Either way, it’s beautifully played. Soloist Xiayin Wang embeds herself firmly in the orchestral texture but, unlike in the Copland concerto, the piano remains a fully distinctive, individual element too with its own voice that debates, even contends with the orchestra. After the appassionato of the opening movement, the second movement canzone begins with wind solos over a beautifully realised bed of strings and, when the piano enters, Wang imbues it with a songful quality that is all the more beautiful because it is so different from what had dominated the first movement. This movement is like a delicate, evocative Nachtmusik, played with diaphanous colour by the RSNO musicians and conducted with great sensitivity. The finale then arrives with a bang and a moto perpetuo feel that seldom lets up. Wang’s virtuosity is breathtaking throughout, but in this concerto it tends to be the orchestral colour that really stands out.
It’s impossible to talk about American piano concertos without mentioning Gershwin, and this account of his concerto is a winner. The first movement has an edgy feel to it, and Oundjian revels in drawing out the syncopations and inflections of the rhythms. It’s Wang’s playing that is most impressive, though. She manages to combine a relaxed, almost laid-back feel with absolute rhythmic precision, and the moment where Gershwin’s second, slower theme enters is a beautiful contrast in mood. The slow movement gets right inside the languid, almost decadent feel of the jazz-inflected rhythms. That’s easy enough when it’s the solo trumpet doing it at the outset, but Oundjian’s achievement is to make that vibe remain convincing when the whole orchestra takes up that mood. The second theme feels sparky and inventive, and when the strings take up the theme at the 8-minute mark the sound is lush, extravagant and sensuous. The finale then rattles along at a dangerously edgy pace, and it’s little short of a miracle that Wang can hold it together in the way that she does. The energy lets up a little for the return of the Adagio’s theme, but then careers on into the final pages. That great orchestral outburst, like a great guffaw shared in by everyone, can rarely have sounded so outrageously off-the-leash, before the piano re-enters to bring the whole concerto (and disc) triumphantly over the finishing line.
This disc together with an all-Adams CD - see review - provide an interesting and potentially important memento of Oundjian’s first year with the RSNO. More than that, these are really excellent performances.
Simon Thompson  

Previous review: Leslie Wright