Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23 (1875/1889) [35:08]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16 (1868) [29:12]
Denis Kozhukhin (piano)
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Vassily Sinaisky
rec. October 2015, Funkhaus Nalepastrasse Berlin
PENTATONE PTC5186566 SACD [64:37]
There are no prizes here for novelty of repertoire, though naturally the Schumann-Grieg was the more popular coupling in LP days due to the Tchaikovsky’s girth. Denis Kozhuknin is the soloist, still not yet 30, though no longer in the first flush of his 2010 triumph at the Queen Elisabeth Competition win in Brussels in 2010. He is partnered by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra under Vassily Sinaisky.
Kozhukhin has the kind of technical apparatus that makes pretty light work of the Grieg’s demands. His chording is crisp and tight and his phrasing thoughtful and well-shaped. He plays the cadenza in the first movement with control, even if Sinaisky is inclined to overindulge the orchestra in the final page of this movement. The pliant slow movement reveals nicely weighted playing but as the concerto goes on an uneasy realisation regarding the balancing emerges - which is that listening to this SACD on conventional equipment leads to a recession of the string choirs. The piano, fortunately, is forwardly balanced enough to allow passagework to be heard in the finale often submerged – but it does come at a cost. Then again there is also something lumpy and unsatisfactory about the peroration; where it should exult, it sounds instead a little stiff.
Perhaps it’s the nature of the SACD sound that means that the piano is dangerously front-and-centre in the Tchaikovsky. The opening is largely coach-and-horses – the piano is the coach – whereas the exultant orchestral theme should sweep things along. Fortunately, the percussion is audible in the sonic sound stage but it doesn’t really compensate for a skewed perspective. Again I’d add the corollary that it may sound much better and more appropriately balanced listening the SACD way. The brass is authoritative and there is much orchestral excellence to be encountered – this is no routine run-through – and the highlight is probably the soloist’s alternately poetic and playful jousting in the slow movement where the orchestral drone effect is well conveyed. There’s no question that Kozhukhin is a refined and thoughtful musician for whom testosterone-pumped grandstanding is of little interest in this work.
The fact remains, however, that there is ultimately a similar lack of electricity in this performance too and in a saturated market-place competition is simply too intense for this release.