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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor [35:27]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G [43:05]
Denis Matsuev (piano)
The Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre/Valery Gergiev
rec. March-April 2013, Concert Hall, Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, Russia

This recording is a real treat. CDs that combine excellent recordings of both the first and second piano concertos are about as common as hen’s teeth, but these two deserve comparison with any in the catalogue, individually as well as a pair. All the participants are on magnificent form, and they are captured in stonking sound which makes this disc a winner on every front.
Matsuev and Gergiev go at each other like sparring partners here, each one encouraging the other to up his game in a way that spurs them on to new heights. The first glory of the recording, though, is the Mariinsky Orchestra, whose strings sound like world-beaters in this repertoire. They set about the First Concerto’s glorious introductory theme with a magnificently rich tone that I can only describe, in most un-Russian terms, as nobilmente, but then they are light as gossamer for the scherzo section of the middle movement. Likewise, the brass and percussion punctuate all the big moments without ever becoming too dominant, and the winds milk out every nuance of feeling from the second subject of the first movement. Matsuev, meanwhile, repeatedly shows himself to be a master shaper of this work. He revels in all the fireworks, such as the treatment of the big theme in the introduction, whose fistfuls of chords he seems to toss off like an easy exercise, or the thunderous octaves that usher in the final peroration of the Rondo. As soon as the big introductory theme has faded away he finds an utterly extraordinary lightness of touch for the first theme of the Allegro con spirito, and he never allows his virtuosity to become ugly or showy for its own sake. There is poetry in his cadenza, for example, which teases the listener as it gently unfurls its treasures, and he finds remarkable sweetness in the outer sections of the middle movement. Everything comes together in the culminating coda of the Rondo, which has all the boisterousness that you would hope for but is always innately musical. In this quest Gergiev shows himself to be a perhaps unexpectedly sensitive partner.
The G major concerto is, if anything, even finer. The orchestral swagger that launches the first movement is fantastic, and sets the scene for a larger-than-life performance that ekes every inch of contrast and beauty out of this work. Listen, for example, to the way that the ebullience of the first theme melts into a second theme of utter sweetness - and a marvellous solo clarinet. That sense of contrast feeds into Matsuev’s playing, which is full of grandeur and lightness as required. His cadenzas, for example, sound properly architectural rather than showy, and more often not it seems to be he rather than Gergiev that provides the rhythmic impetus that drives the movement forwards. That’s especially true in the finale, which is explosive in its levels of energy, rising to a final peroration that is even more exciting than that of the first concerto. That rhythmic vitality is all-important here, and is especially telling in the oriental, second episode of the Rondo, which then bubbles over into the final statement of the main theme. The highlight of the work - and, in fact, of the entire disc - comes, as well it should, with the triple concerto slow movement, one of Tchaikovsky’s most sublime creations. The violin sounds magnificent at the bottom of its register, and that soaring arch that marks the culmination of the main theme has seldom sounded so good. The cello, too has a songful quality that fits in brilliantly with that of the violin and the piano. The moment where they recap the main theme after the contrasting central episode brings the three together gloriously. Then, around the five minute mark, the orchestral strings, about whom you have almost forgotten after such glorious solo playing, remind you again of that nobilmente streak that characterised their playing of the First Concerto’s opening.
This disc is a true meeting of minds: soloist, conductor and orchestra are all inspired to give of their best. They produce playing and a sweep that makes both these concertos work brilliantly. Previously, my favourite coupling of these two works had been that of Stephen Hough in Minnesota — on Hyperion, and also featuring the composer’s other works for piano and orchestra — but the sheer class of the playing, together with the impeccable orchestral sound, now makes me favour this one.
Simon Thompson

Previous review: Rob Maynard

Masterwork Index: Tchaikovsky piano concerto 1