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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
Reviewed as a 24/96 Studio Master from The Classical Shop
Pdf booklet included

Tchaikovsky’s second piano concerto No. 2 has never been as popular as his first, and listening to Peter Donohoe, Rudolf Barshai and the Bournemouth Symphony in the former makes such neglect seem almost criminal (review). Also, that EMI-Warner release, recorded in 1986, boasts Nigel Kennedy and Steven Isserlis as soloists in the central movement; luxury casting indeed. While the recording hasn’t aged too well the performance is as electric as I remembered it. And don’t forget Stephen Hough, Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra, in a 2-CD set that Ian Lace called ‘a triumph’ (review). What that account of the Op. 44 lacks in sheer energy it more than makes up for in elegance and insight.

It’s worth pointing out that the version played by Xiayin Wang – and by Donohoe and Hough – is the original one. The pianist, composer and conductor Alexander Siloti altered the Andante: in fact the violin and cello solos were removed altogether. The score he published in 1897 also included cuts and changes elsewhere. As a bonus Vänskä's well-filled set includes Siloti’s version of that movement as an appendix, plus one by Hough. That makes for some very interesting contrasts, especially if one programmes in either of these alternatives in place of the composer's original.

The Khachaturian concerto is another piece that’s been sidelined in recent years; ArkivMusic list just 15 versions in the current catalogue. Recently I reviewed a new recording with the Armenian pianist Nareh Arghamanyan, but that was terribly disappointing. However, it did give me a chance to hear Peter Katin’s splendid account with Hugo Rignold and the LSO (Everest/Countdown). That elderly version, which sounds like it was recorded yesterday, is still the one to beat. Listeners might also wish to consider the William Kapell/Serge Koussevitzky performance with the Boston Symphony, recorded in 1946; it's now available on Naxos Historical (review).

The pianist Xiayin Wang, who is is new to me, has done well in the concert hall. That said, the response to some of her recordings has been somewhat mixed; for instance, Nick Barnard raved about her Rachmaninov, but Leslie Wright wasn’t persuaded by her trio of American concertos (review). She certainly makes a good impression at the start of the Tchaikovsky; as for Oundjian, his progress may seem a little sedate after Barshai’s cracking pace. The advantage of a more leisurely approach is that the Scottish band's playing is far more secure than that of their English counterparts. As if that weren't praise enough, the piano is much better balanced and the overall sound - engineered by Ralph Couzens and Jonathan Cooper - is first class.

One has to marvel at Wang's exemplary technique, especially in the concerto's bravura sections; however, she's at her thoughtful, eloquent best in the quieter, more lyrical ones. The lovely, clear piano sound is an added attraction. Some listeners will prefer Barshai and Donohoe in this opener, not least because their precipitous playing generates so much raw excitement. The downside - if there is one - is that the rather bright EMI-Warner sound feels a tad relentless after a while. And although the warmer, more refined Vänskä and Oundjian performances aren't nearly so visceral they do at least winkle out the detail, colour and nuance that’s missing from the older recording.

Maya Iwabuchi on violin and Aleksei Kiseliov on cello don't eclipse Barshai's illustrious pair; that said, they’re still pure of line and ravishing of tone. Indeed, this RSNO performance has an inner glow that’s most beguiling. Any caveats? Well, the narrative thread is a little hard to discern at times. Then again, it almost snaps in Barshai and Donohoe's wild, coruscating finale. The RSNO aren’t pushed quite so much, and that makes for an orderly yet satisfyingly propulsive sign-off. Both Donohoe and Hough are wonderfully compelling musicians, and their accounts of Tchaikovsky's Op. 44 are indispensable. I'd say Wang's performance is just as desirable; indeed, it’s sure to win her a raft of new admirers.

How does she fare in the Khachaturian, written for and premiered by the great Russian virtuoso Lev Oborin? Well, the start of the Allegro has plenty of brio and bite, but as before this pianist is at her most pliant and persuasive in the concerto's quieter passages. Don't be fooled though, for there's a surprising edge – an unrepentant glitter – to her playing in the extrovert ones that’s just riveting. Her articulation is remarkable and those glorious runs are simply breathtaking. The central movement – what dark, moody woodwinds at the outset – is perfectly poised, shape and momentum assured.

I'm really very taken with Chandos’s excellent recording; now if only they could achieve the same results at MediaCity, the default venue for their sessions with the BBC Philharmonic. Still, it’s a measure of just how good those Everest engineers were that Katin’s khachaturian - recorded in 1959 - sounds as good as it does. Oundjian and the RSNO deliver a big-boned finale, to which the soloist responds with playing of equal force and weight. That she does so without hiatus or hyperbole is proof of her sound technique and good judgment. Katin is not usurped, but this young pretender almost topples him from his throne. Incidentally, Xiayin Wang's account of this concerto comfortably outclasses that of Constantine Orbelian and Neeme Järvi, also on Chandos.

Xiayin Wang astounds at every turn, as does the recording; a terrific coupling, too.

Dan Morgan