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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major, Op. 44 (original version, 1879-1880) [42:03]
Aram KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978)
Piano Concerto in D flat major, Op. 38 (1936) [33:35]
Xiayin Wang (piano)
Maya Iwabuchi (violin)
Aleksei Kiseliov (cello)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Peter Oundjian
rec. 8-9 November 2015, Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, UK

Having hugely enjoyed three discs of solo piano repertoire from Xiayin Wang on Chandos I was interested to encounter her with an orchestra. This was also my first opportunity to hear the Royal Scottish National Orchestra working with their current music director Peter Oundjian. The final 'first' was having finally acquired a SA-CD player to be able to hear the Chandos engineering in that format.

On all fronts this can be deemed a very successful disc. Indeed, if the coupling appeals, the quality of both performing and engineering makes this a self-recommending recording. If I am going to be really picky, neither performance would be my number one choice, but these are marginal and subjective judgements.

Throughout Ms Wang displays her usual peerless technique, which she uses very much at the service of the music. This is not simply empty rhetorical display; this is music-making where technique and musicianship serve the work. In his lifetime, Tchaikovsky was not exactly fortunate with his concertante works; Nikolai Rubinstein dismissed the First Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto was dedicated to Leopold Auer who promptly rubbished it. Wilhelm Fitzhagen got the Variations on a Rococo Theme published at least – but in his own “improved” version with one variation removed and the sequence of the others changed. Tchaikovsky died before finishing his Third Piano Concerto, which leaves the Second recorded here. For many years, this existed in a version butchered by Alexander Siloti and published four years after the composer's death. We are given the complete original version here – which is now the norm, Siloti's edition having been consigned to the status of a historical curio.

In the original form, this is Tchaikovsky's longest concertante work, the 'novelty' being an extended piano-trio-and-orchestra section in the central Andante non troppo. But that comes after a long twenty-minute opening movement. The virtues of this performance are clear from the opening bars. Oundjian sets a confidently striding, unfussy tempo, matched by resolute and muscular orchestral playing. This is joined by pianism that combines power with poise and precision. In the midst of all this clear-headed brilliance, I do miss just that extra degree of Slavic angst. This is passionate and skilled music making, for sure, but lacking the last jot of Russian romance. The benefits are the clarity of Ms Wang's playing, which is not at the cost of style. Recently I listened to another – non-SACD – version from Mélodie Zhao with Michail Jurowski and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande on Claves. Ms Zhao is also endowed by a prodigious technique and, with the more standard coupling of the popular Tchaikovsky 1st Piano Concerto, this is an attractive disc. However, in direct comparison it is the version from Ms Wang that emerges as more impressive music.

Such is the standard of concertizing artists these days that I find it is often in the 'simpler' passages that the most telling comparisons can be made. By this frame of reference, Ms Wang is of the very highest order. Her natural phrasing is lyrical and spontaneous in effect. This is especially true in the central Andante non troppo. Curious that the most individual part of the work is the section Siloti butchered most. It is actually relatively hard to hear this version now but it has turned up in the Sony remastered box set of Ormandy conducting Tchaikovsky. There Gary Graffman is an impressive soloist right up to the halving of the length of this very beautiful slow movement. Wang's chamber music partners in this mini-trio are the section leaders from the SNO and are very fine. The 1988 Gramophone award-winning version from Peter Donohoe in Bournemouth with Rudolf Barshai was notable for its use of Nigel Kennedy and Stephen Isserlis as the 'extra' soloists. And very fine indeed they are too, but in fact none of the versions I know are in any way 'let down' by their use of the front desk players as here. Donohoe's performance is excellent and, apart from a recording that is no match for the new Chandos, on balance – just – I would give his interpretation the nod over Wang. An often forgotten version from much earlier – Werner Haas in Monte Carlo on Phillips – is another version I have a strong affection for. The uncredited Monte Carlo soloists have a febrile intensity – swooning passion and fast vibrato – that I enjoy a lot. No, neither engineering nor orchestra hold a candle to the current disc, but that is where individual judgements and trade-offs occur. Donohoe's two-disc set of all the Tchaikovsky keyboard concertante works can be found online for under a pound....

The coupling might well prove to be a deciding matter. Away from the recording studio, Khachaturian's fame seems to be in decline. Using the BBC Proms archive as a touchstone of taste is enlightening. Tchaikovsky has reached a kind of critical mass of popularity; the 1st concerto has featured at over 100 Proms; even the 'neglected' 2nd has appeared in over 30. Khachaturian is quite a different case. None of his 3 Symphonies have received a single performance – No.3 with its manic organ solo and 15 fanfare trumpets would be a perfect piece of Proms 'Theatre'. More curiously, his lovely violin concerto has never been performed there – except in its transcription for flute. None of the cello concertante works have appeared and the Piano concerto recorded here had the last of its four outings in 1950. Factor out the enduring pops of the Adagio from Spartacus and the Sabre Dance from Gayaneh and his absence from the "World's Greatest Music Festival" is striking. Certainly, his position as one of the three most important Soviet composers alongside Shostakovich and Prokofiev is the most questioned and least enduring.

So, aside from welcoming this recording I was pleased to note that it was made in conjunction with concert performances. It is hard to imagine the audiences did not enjoy hearing this work. It is not profound or laden with meaning – it is an attractive, modern(ish), but accessible, work written using Khachaturian's preferred rather garish orchestration and preference for swooning melodies and angular rhythms. It is considered the composer's first major international success and its strengths are the freshness of the writing and the individuality of the Armenian-influenced melodies and rhythms that pervade so much of this composer's work. The downside is a magpie-like borrowing of influences from contemporaries. On disc the concerto has fared well with notable recordings across the last fifty years. Even in the CD era, the collector can choose between a variety of couplings and price brackets. My first encounter was a Melodiya LP with Yakov Flier accompanied by Kirill Kondrashin and the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra from 1963. Allowing for an occasionally glassy recording that crumbles and congests at climaxes, this is still a very impressive version. Kondrashin sets tempi generally a fraction steadier, with a heavier feel than the mercurial Wang, which helps bring out the trenchant stamping power. The central Andante con anima features the rare flexatone, which lend the main melody a curiously effective ghostly halo around the string-led theme. The new recording places this instrument perfectly back within the orchestra and Wang is excellent at gently decorating the pensive melody. It’s a different approach to Flier's altogether more overtly lamenting approach, but both work well.

In fact, I have to say the concerto has fared well on disc with versions from Alicia de Larrocha on Decca, Dora Serviarian-Kuhn with Loris Tjeknavorian on ASV, Oxana Yablonskaya on Naxos – I am not sure the flexatone was used here. All are persuasively performed and coupled with interesting alternative works. I also find the previous Chandos recording from Neeme Jarvi in his Scottish pomp with the SNO enjoyable too – more so than did my colleague Dan Morgan. The soloist for Jarvi was Constantine Orbelian and they again prefer a heavier, earthier approach which just possibly, at a push, would be my preference too. That, allied to the fact that I feel this music sounds most 'authentic' when played with old-style Soviet cutting edge and primary colours, is why I would turn elsewhere for a preferred version of this work. But this is in no way to diminish the excellence of this new disc.

The usual high quality Chandos production values complete an enjoyable disc and further elevate the good opinions already formed of Xiayin Wang's exceptional talent.

Nick Barnard

Previous reviews: Dan Morgan ~ Simon Thompson ~ Dave Billinge



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