Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor Op.23 (final version 1888) [31.03]
Felicja Blumental (piano)
Orchestra of the Vienna Musikgesellschaft/Gielen
Recording first issued on Vox in 1959 - no data available
170g vinyl

Brana Records' primary goal is to reissue recordings by the Polish born pianist Felicja Blumental. This recording, made in 1957, according to the sleeve, but first issued in 1959, preserves a performance of considerable musical quality. Blumental rises to the challenges of this concerto but is at her musical best in the lovely andantino simplice - prestissimo central movement. Here her passagework is quite exquisite both for its accuracy and for her interpretative insights. The outer movements require a lot more power and there are moments when she seems less at ease. Comparisons with another historic recording which was to hand, Horowitz and Toscanini (1941), show how much more power can be brought to the opening in particular. Nevertheless, Blumental was a fine performer and the disc is well worth hearing. The excellent orchestra is listed on the sleeve as the Orchestra of the Vienna Musikgesellschaft, on the Vox LP they are listed as the Vienna State Opera Orchestra. Certainly the oboe sound is the very distinctive Viennese instrument familiar from Decca recordings of the early 50s.

A careful study of the Brana sleeve reveals almost nothing about the history of this performance, not even whether it is mono or stereo. The note has a little to say about Blumental, almost nothing about Tchaikovsky and absolutely nothing about the concerto: perhaps it is not necessary that it should be otherwise. The record contains only this work, a mere 31 minutes music. The original issue had this concerto on the B side and the second Rachmaninov on the A side; a very generous amount of music, though one doubts it sounded very well. Vox proudly claimed it was 'Ultra High Fidelity' which is frankly a joke because it is the oddest of recorded balances. I am aware that this Brana reissue has been ‘restored’ by Floating Earth but it sounds as though they simply transferred the best they could from the original master tape and issued the result. Had anyone actually listened they would have heard that the piano and upper strings are firmly in the left-channel whilst the woodwind and brass are in the right-channel. Almost nothing is heard from between. The piano itself sounds quite reasonable given the age of the recording, whilst the orchestra has more than a touch of the very early 50s mono Decca sound, clear but very thin and lacking in bass. One suspects a better microphone on the piano than the orchestra. A 1957 recording has no excuse for sounding this poor, listen to what Mercury and RCA were doing in the USA during the mid 1950s, often recording onto three-channel tapes which still sound very fine. The actual LP is properly centred and nicely flat so apart from a few inevitable ticks it is a good quality product at the asking price of about £15 and I am sure the performance sounds better than it ever has before.

Do not hesitate if this pianist is one who you want to hear but be prepared to be tolerant of the sound. If you can switch to mono - which I cannot - I suspect it will sound better.

Dave Billinge

Previous review: Stephen Greenbank