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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23 (1874/75, rev. 1879) [34.04]
(world première recording of 1879 Urtext edition)
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor Op.16 (1913, reconstructed 1923) [31.16]
Kirill Gerstein (piano)
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/James Gaffigan
rec. 23-27 June 2014, Großer Sendesaal im Funkhaus Nalepastraße, Berlin, Germany

For his first orchestral album Russian/American pianist Kirill Gerstein presents us with the world première recording of Tchaikovsky’s own 1879 version of the Piano Concerto No. 1.

How ridiculous it seems today to think that one of the greatest works in classical music repertoire, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 was denounced by Nikolai Rubinstein who had been engaged to introduce the Concerto. Completed and published in 1875, Tchaikovsky dedicated it to pianist Hans von Bülow who believed in the Concerto and who gave the première in Boston, United States the same year. After a number of early performances Tchaikovsky revised the piano part and this second version was printed in 1879. The composer conducted this 1879 version right up to the St. Petersburg concert in 1893 that included the première of the Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 Pathétique, just a matter of days before he died. A year after Tchaikovsky’s death a third version of the Piano Concerto No. 1 appeared in print with an authorship that is difficult to establish; although one of Tchaikovsky’s students Alexander Siloti is sometimes mentioned as being responsible for the alterations. Gerstein says that the third version “contains a number of editorial changes that differ from the text of Tchaikovsky’s own score, were not authorised by him and [were] made posthumously ... the editorial changes made to the third version added a flavour of superficial brilliance to the piece which also at the same time took away its genuine musical character.” Based on Tchaikovsky’s own conducting score from his last concert a new critical urtext of 1879 is being published in 2015 by the Tchaikovsky House-Museum in Klin. This will celebrate the one hundred and seventy-five year anniversary of Tchaikovsky’s birth and mark one hundred and forty years since the première of the Piano Concerto No. 1. Gerstein, for this recording, was “granted special pre-publication access to the materials of the new urtext edition.”

This is a well shaped and powerful account from a pianist totally attuned to Tchaikovsky’s world in which dramatic power blends with grandeur. There is some unerringly sensitive and beautifully lyrical playing by Gerstein in the Andantino semplice and the Finale draws striking playing from the soloist together with a joyous poetic quality to be found only in the finest accounts.

The most compelling and rewarding account of the Tchaikovsky that I know — is the stunning live 1994 Philharmonie, Berlin account from Martha Argerich and the Berliner Philharmoniker under Claudio Abbado on Deutsche Grammophon. In addition Argerich recorded another exceptional live account in 1980 at Munich with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Kirill Kondrashin on Philips. Another recording to admire is the re-mastered mono account played by Shura Cherkassky and the Berliner Philharmoniker. The Cherkassky lingers long in the memory and was recorded in 1955 under Leopold Ludwig at the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin for Deutsche Grammophon.
When Prokofiev introduced his Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 16 at Pavlovsk near St. Petersburg in 1913 the audience reaction was negative. There was a lot of hissing with a large number leaving the hall during the performance. The score was thought destroyed during the turmoil of the Russian Revolution in 1923 so the exiled Prokofiev reconstructed the entire score using a two-piano reduction manuscript his mother had brought out of Russia. Twice as long as the earlier D flat major Concerto the immense technical demands of the Concerto No. 2 are some of the most challenging in the whole repertoire, on the margins of what is possible to play.

Clearly Kirill Gerstein is in his element with the exacting and tempestuous nature of the writing. This is especially telling in the opening movement which draws the listener into the contrasting moods. The sense of resolute engagement is notable. In the vigorously whirling Scherzo and the unsettling Intermezzo Gerstein supplies lithe buoyancy whilst always maintaining total control.

Of the alternative recordings of the Prokofiev I prize the account by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and the BBC Philharmonic under Gianandrea Noseda. Recorded in 2013 at the BBC Studios, MediaCityUK, Salford, Bavouzet is in remarkable form. He plays with burning commitment. The account forms part of his complete set of the five piano concertos on Chandos.

On my standard player this hybrid SACD has good sound which is clear with an excellent balance between the soloist’s Steinway D and the orchestra. I enjoyed reading Gerstein's informative essay about both works in the booklet notes.

This musical collaboration is an especially fruitful one in which the lyrical and dramatic elements are perceptively balanced. Gaffigan holds his elite orchestral forces together steadfastly and with precision, focus and fluidity.

It is fascinating to hear Tchaikovsky’s original intentions for his Piano Concerto No. 1 coupled with Prokofiev’s turbulent Piano Concerto No. 2 especially in performances as outstanding as these.

Michael Cookson

And another review...

This disc’s USP is the first recording of what Kirill Gerstein argues was Tchaikovsky’s final word on his first piano concerto. It was this version that Tchaikovsky was conducting shortly before his death, and the booklet notes suggest that posthumous changes were made to the score which the composer never sanctioned. It is that version that has made its mark on the public consciousness, but Gerstein has done us a service in restoring what he believes to be Tchaikovsky’s true intentions, though I think it’s only partially successful. The booklet note contains more detail for the interested scholar.

If you know the work then you’ll certainly notice some changes, but there aren’t actually that many of them. The most obvious one comes right at the beginning as the strings sail into that great theme that launches the work. In the version that most of us know, the piano accompanies them with thunderous fistfuls of chords, but here those chords are transformed into fairly delicate arpeggios, and the effect is very surprising. It’s altogether sweeter, and it even has the effect of making the main string theme sound smaller and more intimate, too, though no doubt that's also down to Gaffigan's decision-making as conductor. That delicacy seems to affect the rest of the reading of the first movement’s main Allegro. The presentation of themes is more discreet and exploratory than usual, and not until the torrent of octaves that launches the cadenza of the development does Gerstein become more noticeably extroverted. The orchestral colour is similar, with gorgeously sweet winds in lyrical second theme.

Most of the other changes to the concerto are fairly minimal. The Andantino feels slightly faster than usual, and the speed of the central section is light-footed and dances beautifully. There are cosmetic changes to the piano part in finale — an extra ripple here or there — and there is a brief extra episode tagged on to one of the more familiar sections of the Rondo, but it doesn't add that much. Nor, to my ears, did Gerstein’s and Gaffigan’s more discreet approach to the concerto. To my ears, it could have done with a bit more barnstorming. It’s all admirably clear, but only in the final cadenza did my pulse start to quicken. The notes argue that this version gives the work a more Schumannesque conception. Well, maybe, though I’m not sure I buy that. Will it catch on? We'll see.

Gerstein is on surer ground in Prokofiev, though. The piano sings the opening theme beautifully, and the second theme has a rakish quality, like a sideways glance. There is rippling sensuality to the first movement’s central cadenza; beautiful, virtuosic and impressively lyrical at the same time and the orchestra enters magisterially as it draws to an end. The scherzo is delicate and helter-skelter, almost like a perpetuum mobile, breathless in its intensity. The third movement opens with oppressive heaviness, and Gerstein effectively treads the difficult line between weight and the movement of the dance. At one point Gaffigan seems to lead the orchestra like a marching band and it works very well. It curdles into a dance of death in the final minute, before the explosive anarchy of the finale bursts onto the scene. It’s tempestoso, indeed, but the central episode still feels lively, even if it's actually slower. However, it feels very thoughtful into the bargain: the cadenza seems to turn over the movement's ideas while growing in power and vigour, and the ending feels zany but also satisfyingly conclusive.

Simon Thompson