Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23 (1874-1875) [34:48]
Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a (arr. Mikhail Pletnev, 1978) [18:08]
Alexandra Dariescu (piano)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Darrell Ang
rec. 2 August 2014, Henry Wood Hall, London (concerto); 22 June 2016, All Saints Church, Durham Road, London (suite)
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from Hyperion
Pdf booklet included

I always admire relatively unknown artists who tackle works made famous by legions of great interpreters before them. Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto is no exception; among the 200-plus recordings listed by ArkivMusic are classic accounts from the likes of Martha Argerich, Vladimir Ashkenazy and Emil Gilels, not to mention highly recommendable versions from Peter Donohoe, Stephen Hough and Yevgeny Sudbin. All help to enliven and illuminate a much-loved work that’s overburdened by ubiquity.

Not an easy task, but that hasn’t prevented new assaults on Olympus. Among the more recent accounts of this concerto are those by Beatrice Rana and Denis Kozhukhin, both well reviewed on these pages. Alas, I found the one unbearably gauche, the other plain dull. Now we have the young Romanian pianist Alexandra Dariescu – new to me – who has had glowing notices elsewhere. I know the Singaporean conductor Darrell Ang from his fine Meyerbeer collection; that was one of my Recordings of the Year in 2014. The hard-working RPO need no introduction.

Ang and Dariescu’s approach to the concerto’s famous opening points to an urgent and incisive reading. And that’s how it continues. I was particularly impressed by the pianist’s firm control of the notes and the conductor’s diligent, entirely supportive accompaniment. True, this isn’t a nervy, high-voltage reading la Sudbin, but it’s a very musical one. The Mike Hatch/Chris Kalcov recording is pretty good, with plenty of detail and a decent stereo spread, although the tuttis aren’t always as focused as I’d like. As for the RPO they’re on best behaviour, responding with alacrity to Ang’s clean, unfussy direction.

Dariescu is at her sensitive best in the Andantino semplice, where she combines inwardness with outer sparkle and a mercurial wit. Ang allows her all the time and space she needs in a movement that can so easily seem anticlimactic after that arresting opener. There’s no vulgar, attention-seeking pianism here; indeed, Dariescu colours and shapes the music in a quietly unspectacular way that holds one’s ear and interest to the very end. The Allegro con fuoco, which has all the fire it needs, is never overdriven. Also, there’s a true sense of shared musicianship here, and that makes for a well proportioned and very pleasing finale.

I’m even more taken with Dariescu’s account of conductor-pianist Mikhail Pletnev’s Nutcracker arrangement. Her control of touch, rhythm and dynamics in the March is admirable, as is her nimble-fingered Waltz of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Tarantella and Trepak. The Intermezzo (Scene 2, No. 8), so persuasively shaped and shaded, is just gorgeous. True, the Chinese Dance could be a tad lighter on its tiny feet, but I suspect that has more to do with Pletnev’s scoring than Dariescu’s playing. No such qualms about the concluding Andante maestoso – that crowning pas de deux – which has all the sweep and swell the music demands. Mike Hatch’s recording is detailed, airy and perfectly weighted.

If there’s one word that sums up this album for me it’s modesty; indeed, the concerto succeeds precisely because it doesn’t attempt to storm that daunting summit. Instead what we get is a fresh, invigorating performance that still captures all the work’s important elements. As for the suite, that confirms Dariescu as a most engaging artist who, one senses, has much to say about the music she plays. The succinct liner-notes by Philip Borg-Wheeler, an occasional contributor to MusicWeb, complement a splendid release.

A most rewarding account of the concerto and a delightful one of the Pletnev suite; good sound, too.

Dan Morgan

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