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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano concerto no.1 in B-flat minor op.23 (1875) [35:27]
Piano concerto no.2 in G major op.44 (1880) [43:05]
Denis Matsuev (piano)
Mariinsky Orchestra/Valery Gergiev
rec. (live performance?) Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, March and April 2013

President Vladimir Putin is famous for well-publicised recreational activities that we in the west often find utterly outlandish. The adoring Russian media, though, positively delight in macho images of him hang-gliding with flocks of birds, fitting trackers to polar bears, taking skin samples from whales, scuba-diving on archaeological sites and, in general, seizing every opportunity to take off his shirt and expose his manly chest. Vigorous "traditional" masculinity is clearly regarded, then, as a laudable characteristic in contemporary Russia, even if its social and cultural ramifications - such as the Minister of Culture's recent denial of Tchaikovsky's homosexuality - are frequently taken to ridiculous extremes.
Valery Gergiev is well known as a long term friend of President Vladimir Putin and a little internet research confirms that Denis Matsuev, winner of the first prize for piano at the 1998 Moscow International Tchaikovsky Competition, is another musician who enjoys the particular favour of the Russian head of state. Standing at 6'4", "built like a weightlifter" according to The New York Times and apparently nicknamed "the Siberian bear", 38 years old Matsuev is a physically formidable presence on stage. Moreover, he often gives strikingly virtuosic performances to match, with generally gushing press headlines recognising his "muscle and speed" (The New York Times) and "muscle and mind" (The Washington Post), as well as praising a style that "finds a place for both a hush and a roar" (The New York Times). Might it not be too fanciful, then, to suggest that these two artists' frequently powerful and rugged new accounts of Tchaikovsky's B-flat minor and G major piano concertos might be regarded as appropriately representative of the Putin era Zeitgeist?
Over the years, the concertos - particularly the ever-popular first - have generated a wide range of recorded interpretations. The great majority have favoured a traditional line and the B-flat minor, in particular, has usually been seen as an epic, adrenalin-charged duel between soloist and orchestra, in which each drives the other relentlessly forward to a fireworks conclusion. Thus, as one of the great peaks of the Romantic piano concerto repertoire, the first concerto and its fellows were hardly surprise choices when Hyperion selected them to mark the celebratory 50th issue in their much-lauded series of the same name. The rather fewer recorded accounts that offer more considered approaches - including my own favourite from Solomon, accompanied by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Issay Dobrowen in 1949 (EMI CHS 7 64855 2 and as part of the EMI Icon set) - have rarely had the popular impact of their barnstorming rivals. While selecting other accounts for critical comparison is a very personal matter, on this occasion I took the opportunity to reacquaint myself with two favourite older recordings of the traditional school - from Gary Graffman with the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell (1969) in the First concerto (Sony Classical S2K 94737) and from Sylvia Kersenbaum, accompanied by the Orchestre National de l'O.R.T.F. under Jean Martinon, in a 1972 performance of the Second that garnered excellent reviews at the time of its first release but is now often, and unjustly, overlooked (EMI 7243 5 69695 2 0).
Having listened to this new disc several times over the course of a few days, what strikes me most, apart from the expert technical execution, is Matsuev's artistic relationship with the orchestra. True enough, when he plays along with them, he is quite in line with Gergiev's driven, propulsive interpretation. For much of the first concerto's opening movement, for instance, tempi from both soloist and orchestra are closely matched and very much what anyone familiar with most other widely-known accounts would expect. What then goes on to differentiate this version from those others, though, is the way in which Matsuev treats the episodes for solo piano, frequently slowing passages down and utilising changes in dynamics in order to bring their dreamy, introspective possibilities to the fore. As suggested by those American newspaper headlines pinpointing "a mind" and "a hush" as well as the muscle, this pianist is clearly rather more than a mere thumper of the keys. In fact, as these recordings confirm, the Siberian bear can transform itself, when appropriate, into something of a cuddly-looking koala.
The long opening movements of both concertos offer the best examples. Listen to 6:23-6:59, 8:40-9:07 and 11:07-12:13 in the First concerto's first movement, for instance, and you will find clear examples of that approach - and the long cadenza (16:30-20:23) intermittently offers several others. The overall result is that while this interpretation may lack the sheer visceral thundering-juggernaut excitement of the well-recorded Graffman account, it does force you to listen to Tchaikovsky's score with new ears. Similarly, after Gergiev sets the second concerto's opening movement off on a brisk, vigorous and propulsive trajectory, Matsuev takes the opportunity provided by passages for solo - or almost solo - piano to indulge in some more thoughtful day-dreaming. Listen to 2:33-3:46, 7:48-9:21 and intermittently throughout 11:34-16:46 - although the latter section also offers several impressive exhibitions of sheer virtuosity - and you will hear what I mean.
The remaining movements of the first concerto and the finale of the second are rather less individually characterised, though they certainly succeed in demonstrating Matsuev's fleet-of-finger keyboard wizardry. The prestissimo section of the B-flat minor's second movement (2:58-4:17), for example, really lives up to its billing, with quicksilver pianism of the greatest accomplishment and technique. The succeeding allegro con fuoco finale - introduced, after a very short break between tracks, by a great wake-up thwack from the Mariinsky timpanist - offers more of the same, even though Matsuev continues to find occasional episodes in both movements that allow him to return to a more ruminative approach.

That leaves us with the somewhat problematic middle movement of the second concerto - so problematic, in fact, that Stephen Hough recorded no fewer than three alternative versions of it for the Hyperion Romantic Piano Concerto release to which I referred earlier (CDA67711/2). This new recording thankfully eschews Siloti's drastic abbreviation and instead opts for Tchaikovsky's own revision that accords proper weight to the violin and cello soloist - both obviously very accomplished players but rather ungenerously uncredited on the packaging. Interestingly enough, whereas Sylvia Kersenbaum, like many other pianists, creates the impression at this point that she was playing as part of a chamber trio of equally balanced instrumentalists, one somehow senses that Matsuev is aligning himself more with Gergiev. Thus, both piano and orchestra push the tempo along - admittedly to good effect - from 6:08 until 7:27, in marked contrast with the more ruminative violin/cello dialogues that both precede and succeed that section. I confess to hugely enjoying the extra degree of lush romanticism, flattered by a generous recording acoustic, that Ms Kersenbaum and her colleagues bring to this movement, but others may well prefer the somewhat more direct and businesslike approach of the Mariinsky team.
Though I can find no indication of it on the CD packaging or in the interesting booklet notes, these appear to be recordings of live concert performances, as indicated by the odd cough or two - at, for instance, 13:21 in the second concerto's slow movement. More oddly, in that same movement a swishing noise occurs intermittently at 2:07, 2:13, 9:22, 11:07 and 11:36, almost as if one of the Mariinsky Theatre cleaners was present and sweeping the auditorium floor. I find it so hard to believe that no-one in the production process noticed it that I am charitably inclined to think that it may simply be a fault with my own copy of the disc. In general, though, the sound is good - with the proviso that the piano is positioned just a little too forward, so that the visceral impact of the massed St Petersburg strings in full Romantic mode is somewhat reduced. That prominence can also obscure the odd small but important detail: thus, at 20:08-20:10 in the second concerto's opening movement, we struggle to hear the pizzicato strings that serve to bring the tempo - and the emotional temperature - right down at that point, a moment better engineered on the EMI recording.
All in all, then, although it failed to displace either Gary Graffman's or Sylvia Kersenbaum's recordings in my affections, I enjoyed this account a great deal. The performances are never less than technically assured and anyone coming to them with experience of other recordings will certainly find that Messrs. Matsuev and Gergiev offer an invariably interesting and often quite striking alternative approach.
Rob Maynard

Masterwork Index: Tchaikovsky piano concerto 1