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Aram KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978)
Piano Concerto in D flat (1936) [36:43]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C major, Op. 26 (1917-1921) [30:28]
Nareh Arghamanyan (piano)
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin/Alain Altinoglu
rec. October 2013, Haus des Rundfunks, RBB Berlin, Germany
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical.com
Pdf booklet included
PENTATONE PTC5186510 SACD [67:17]

In the liner-notes for this release Pentatone describe the Armenian pianist Nareh Arghamanyan as ‘one of the most promising talents of her generation’. She has already recorded two albums for this label, solo pieces by Rachmaninov (PTC5186399) and the Liszt concertos. This time around she tackles Khachaturian’s rarely heard Piano Concerto and Prokofiev’s ubiquitous Third. The catalogue is bulging with recommendable versions of the latter, so it’s the former that’s likely to be of most interest to collectors.

Khachaturian’s concerto was the first of his works to do well outside the Soviet Union; some consider the RCA recording, with William Kapell and the Boston Symphony under Serge Koussevitzky, to be indispensable; made less than a decade after the concerto’s Moscow premiere in 1937 it’s now available on a Naxos Historical disc that Chris Howell reviewed in 2002. Alicia de Larrocha’s Decca recording is also highly regarded, but I'm particularly attached to Constantine Orbelian’s version, with Neeme Järvi and the Scottish National Orchestra in dangerously good form (Chandos). That said, anyone interested in this piece should hear the late Peter Katin's Everest recording with Hugo Rignold and the LSO. I have a very decent 24-bit rip from the DVD-A, but I suspect the latest Countdown re-master, available from HDtracks, will sound even better.

How does Arghamanyan fare in this concerto? She does a fair job in the first movement, although the accompaniment is somewhat cautious in character. The recording is good on detail – especially in those pellucid solo passages – but it’s rather soft-edged, and that’s not ideal in the orchestral outbursts. Also, the piano seems to lack body, and the soundstage is far too narrow for my taste. More worryingly the performance drifts into the doldrums - and stays there. I do sympathise with attempts to tone down the concerto’s gaudier elements - if, indeed, that's the intention here - but I'm not convinced the piece responds to such amelioration.

After that becalmed first movement the Andante con anima fares little better. Orbelian and Järvi make far more of the music’s underlying, almost mesmeric tread; their performance - like Katin and Rignold's - is bold and vivid where the newcomers’ is grey and rather hesitant. No, this is the kind of repertoire that needs - nay, demands - to be played for all it’s worth. It's that edge-of-the-seat approach - slightly less evident in the Orbelian/Järvi account than the wildly virtuosic Katin/Rignold one - that makes these two versions so covetable. In such company Arghamanyan and Altinoglu simply don't stand a chance, as their less than brillante finale confirms.

After that I must confess to a sense of foreboding as I approached the Prokofiev. That, too, is a work that welcomes a robust approach; listen to any of the more charismatic/dynamic pianists who have recorded the work and that becomes crystal clear. Next to them Arghamanyan and Altinoglu seem cruelly constrained. One need only compare their flaccid account of the theme and variations with, say, Michel Béroff and Kurt Masur’s living, breathing, fiercely articulated one to realise just how much is missing here. On Chandos Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and the BBC Phil under Gianandrea Noseda achieve a good balance between ebullience and inwardness. More important, the range of colour they find in this score is astonishing. Alas, those hoping for a late rally from the Pentatone partnership will be sorely disappointed.

Outclassed by the competition; look elsewhere.

Dan Morgan
twitter.com/mahlerei