Pyotr Il'yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Concerto No.2 in G major Op.44 (1879-80) [42:03] Aram KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978)
Piano Concerto Op.38 (1936) [33:35]
Xiayin Wang (piano) Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Peter Oundjian
rec. Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, Scotland, 8 and 9 November 2015 reviewed
in surround CHANDOS SACD CHSA5167 [75:54]
These are performances of tremendous energy and power. Xiayin Wang has a phenomenal technique and plays the fastest of runs and most powerful of chords apparently without effort. Soloist, conductor and orchestra sound as if they are excited to be performing together and the sparks really fly in both works. The Chandos engineers know this auditorium well and the sound has all the clarity and range that large romantic style concerti like these need to sound at their best. I say 'romantic style' because whilst Tchaikovsky is firmly in the category of late romantic, Khachaturian really ought to sound more modern than he does in a concerto written in 1936. However, a certain Sergei Rachmaninov was also composing late romantic music in the mid 20th century and we are all happy enough about that!
The major work on the disc is Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No.2. He wrote it seemingly to fill in time during a stay with his sister rather than as the result of any commission. The composer knew he was producing a work of unusual structure and considerable length. The first movement is around 20 minutes long and the slow movement about 15 minutes. It was the slow movement that caused concerns for both his friends and his early performers. Various cuts were proposed on the grounds, mainly, that there was too much of the triple concerto about it. The violin and cello take significant roles as duet partners and as soloists. Ziloti's mutilated edition published four years after Tchaikovsky's death became the repertoire norm for many years. Eventually the qualities of the original version were recognised and nowadays, including here, the full length concerto is given. Arguably the material is not as distinctive as that of the Piano Concerto No.1. Tchaikovsky specialist, the late David Brown, was quite blunt in this view. As a listener I must say I was swept up by this performance and found it all coherent, beautiful and exciting. The old Barshai recording, with the now luxury casting of Nigel Kennedy and Steven Isserlis working with Peter Donohue and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, is still very good, but the slightly faster tempi adopted by Xiayin Wang and Peter Oundjian do help to generate a higher powered reading.
The filler is substantial and not often heard. Khachaturian's music outside the great ballet scores has never had the politest press because of his propensity for big tunes and plenty of brass and percussion. He is also said to lack somewhat in subtlety of construction and development. I have never forgotten EMG's dismissal of his 2nd Symphony in the October 1962 Monthly Letter as "bombast" and an "ill-composed and platitudinous acreage of orchestration without composition." I would bet comments like that would not get past editors these days! Fortunately the Piano Concerto has some good tunes and a lyrical as well as pounding solo line that will always be worth the occasional airing. Indeed an earlier Monthly Letter of March 1953 expressed admiration for its "fascinating orchestration" and even approved the unusual use of the flexatone. It should be noted that this odd addition to the orchestra is not very intrusive or particularly noticeable even in a modern high resolution disc like the present one. There are plenty of alternative recordings including one on Pentatone SACD but I doubt any exceed the virtuosity on display here. Given the magnificence of the main work on this Chandos SACD I have to give it overall a most enthusiastic welcome.