Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat major, Op. 23 (1874/75) [35.08]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16 (1868) [29.12]
Denis Kozhukhin (piano)
Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin/Vassily Sinaisky
rec. October 2015, Funkhaus Nalepastraße, Berlin
PENTATONE PTC5186566 SACD [64.37]

Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin first came to international attention when he won first prize at the 2010 Queen Elisabeth Competition, Brussels. Kozhukhin has already had recital albums of Prokofiev and Haydn sonatas for Onyx. For his first recording for Pentatone he has chosen this pair of repertoire staples and is supported by enjoyably characterful support from the Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and Vassily Sinaisky.

One of the most famous concertos ever written, Tchaikovsky’s First was heavily criticised by Nikolai Rubinstein who was to introduce the work. Soloist Hans von Bülow believed in the concerto and eventually gave the première in 1875 at Boston, USA. Kozhukhin fashions a well shaped account that feels in tune with Tchaikovsky’s world, blending dramatic power with the grandeur of the writing. In the opening movement a sight tension is evident as Kozhukhin and Sinaisky struggle to keep together. In addition there is an especially uncomfortable moment noticeable at point 7:14. Matters soon improve with soloist and orchestra developing a sense of captivating involvement. With some beautifully lyrical playing there is a glorious atmosphere of calm and contemplation in the Andantino semplice. Upbeat and buoyant, the finale is played with confidence but without the soloist providing that joyous, poetic quality experienced in the finest accounts. The performance is convincing but it is hard to look elsewhere than the distinguished 1994 account from Martha Argerich and the Berliner Philharmoniker under Claudio Abbado in the Philharmonie, Berlin on Deutsche Grammophon. Argerich recorded another exceptional account live in 1980 in Munich with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Kirill Kondrashin (Philips). Kirill Gerstein using the 1879 version of the score, which is claimed as a world première, plays admirably with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin under James Gaffigan. Recorded in 2014 at Berlin, Gerstein’s account is on Myrios Classics.
Whilst on holiday in the summer of 1868 Grieg, a young married man with a new baby daughter, wrote his Piano Concerto. Of an instantly cheerful and inspiring disposition it seems to reflect Grieg’s happy time domestically and marks a significant creative point in the composer’s life. Kozhukhin impresses in the Grieg, conveying a boldly vital and rather celebratory feel in the opening movement that is especially conspicuous in the closing section. The Adagio is crisply articulated and delightfully phrased with soulful playing from the soloist. This comes close to providing the spine-tingling passion that the greatest exponents can attain. Kozhukhin plays with vigour and vibrancy in the sparkling Finale and with captivating sincerity in the slow sections. The exultant conclusion almost feels as remarkable as I remember Jan Lisiecki achieving in concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin in a performance rapturously received by the Dresden Semperoper audience in 2015. Owing to the enduring popularity of Grieg’s score the field for competing recordings is crowded. For their sense of grandeur my two preferred accounts are the 1963 Berlin one played by Géza Anda and the Berliner Philharmoniker under Rafael Kubelik on Deutsche Grammophon and from soloist Leif Ove Andsnes with the Berliner Philharmoniker under Mariss Jansons recorded in 2002 in Berlin on EMI Classics.

Using my standard player the sound quality of this SACD is satisfying. It is especially well balanced, yet in truth I have heard more colourful piano tones. Pentatone has presented the album well but Kozhukhin has put a foot wrong in not coupling either of these repertoire warhorses with a lesser known concerto.

Michael Cookson

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