Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Concerto No. 2 [42:03]
Aram KHACHATURIAN (1903-1978)
Piano Concerto [33:35]
Xiayin Wang (piano)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Peter Oundjian (conductor)
rec. Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 8 & 9 November 2015

This disc comes after the RSNO’s previous collaboration with Xiayin Wang on American Piano Concertos (review). Similar to that disc, it follows performances of the Khachaturian concerto in the concert hall (review), and is just as successful. If neither concerto has yet managed to achieve breakthrough mainstream concert hall popularity, there is still a huge amount of great music on offer, and this disc deserves to win friends for both the music and the performers.

Due to my link with the concert, I started the disc by listening to the Khachaturian. There is a satisfying sense of scale to the opening with its triple octaves in the piano, but at the same time there is forward movement, and Peter Oundjian manages to avoid making the texture of what can be an episodic movement sound boggy or static. The wind-led second theme is graceful, almost balletic, and Wang's perambulations around the tune have a rhapsodic, tripping air to them, nicely offsetting the fireworks of the opening. When she played the concerto in Edinburgh, I remember being most impressed by the poetry she found beneath the chutzpah, and that comes out in the way she plays the first movement's cadenza, with lots of colour and contrast, but also a sense of lyricism, almost coyness, that lies perceptibly just below the surface, and which then dissolves wonderfully into the larger-than-life coda.

The slow movement is sultry and evocative, with slightly eastern-tinged inflections that glitter beautifully in Chandos' ever-excellent recorded sound, and they get the flexatone sound just about right, atmospherically present behind the violins without dominating. The low winds, especially, are really satisfying, and Wang's way with the big chordal accompaniment is surprisingly subtle. Such subtlety is rightly thrown out the window with the assertive, honky-took opening of the finale which canters along like something out of Shostakovich. There is a hectic, almost manic sense of energy to this movement, and Wang’s richly grounded playing seems to anchor the orchestra's craziness in the opening sections, before they swap places in the run-up the return of the big opening theme, which sails across the finishing line with scale and grandeur.

The opening burst of the Tchaikovsky didn’t grab me as much as I would have liked. It’s refined and a little aristocratic rather than going for hell-for-leather punch that, say, Matsuev (Mariinsky - review) or Hough (Hyperion - review) bring to it, or, but there is some method to it, intentional or otherwise, because the theme grows in stature as the movement progresses so that by the time of its later restatement it is much more vigorous. The orchestra match it with a beautifully expressive second subject that pours gorgeously out of the clarinet and horn and which is then answered by the piano with delicate restraint. Wang matches them well with as much of the lyricism as she summons for the Khachaturian, and she finds a gorgeously mellifluous tone for the subsequent cadenza.

The highlight of the whole disc, however, is the gorgeous slow movement, one of Tchaikovsky’s most beautiful creations, and heaven be praised that they opt for the composer’s own version and not Siloti’s inexcusable bastardisation of it. Maya Iwabuchi and Aleksei Kiseliov, RSNO leader and principal cello, produce an über-Romantic sound with lots of vibrato against a soft, supportive bed of strings, and the piano’s interaction with them is really sensational. The finale then has a lovely bounce to it with just the right mix of weight and jollity, and the piano weaves in and out of the orchestral texture beautifully, climaxing, as it should, in an exciting dash to the finishing line.

So this is a winning disc that celebrates a concerto partnership that clearly works. If neither is quite a first choice – Berezovsky remains the most convincing advocate for the Khachaturian on disc, while Matsuev and Hough are fascinatingly different in their approach to the Tchaikovsky – then they’re both very successful and, if you want SACD sound, this coupling might just pip those others.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: Dan Morgan

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