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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23 (1874/5) [35:08]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16 (1868) [29:12]
Denis Kozhukin (piano)
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Vassily Sinaisky
rec. 2015, Funkhaus, Berlin
PENTATONE PTC5186566 SACD [64:37]

Denis Kozhukin is stunningly recorded in this coupling of two of the best known piano concertos; the recording supports the orchestra phenomenally, too. After his success at the Queen Elizabeth Competition in 2010, Pentatone offer him the chance to enter, gladiatorially, into one of the most crowded arenas of all, Tchaikovsky’s First. The Grieg isn’t that far behind discographically, either.

Kozhukin has no technical problems with the Tchaikovsky concerto whatsoever but as the performance unfolds there seems to be a disjunction between soloist and conductor. Sinaisky’s orchestra sounds rather bored, lacklustre and literal whereas Kozhikin goes to the other end of the scale, lavishing each and every phrase for all it is worth. This can lead to moments of great beauty, especially on such a perfectly prepared piano and in such sound” the cadenza around 17 minutes into the first movement. However, the contrasts in that cadenza are left unappreciated, with sudden sprints leaving the listener untouched.

The recording fully supports the opening of the second movement, and one listens agape at Kozhukin’s legerdemain; yet in the finale there is again a feeling of disengagement. The orchestral build up to the great double-octave outburst is frankly lame, even if the detail is remarkable; ironically it is at the climax of that build-up that Kozhukin finally lets rip. It is too late in the day however. The final peroration, the long statement of the theme, lacks exultancy; the coda is merely fast and even somewhat machine-like. In summary, there is nothing here to dislodge Argerich off prime slot in this piece (in any of her versions).

The Grieg fares significantly better from the pianist perspective, with Kozhukin seeing the larger canvas well; the orchestra, however, remains set to low voltage. There is much beauty to the orchestral sound (although for that, no recording has so far bettered the Radu Lupu version with Previn and the LSO) and Kozhukin’s cadenza is well shaped, virtuoso without degenerating into Liszt-lite; yet even this does not involve the listener as it might.

The opening of the slow movement is well done by the Berlin orchestra and there is tenderness here; a shame the finale has moments of disengagement also.

The relatively low playing time of just over an hour does not help this disc’s plight. A shame, as when I heard Kozhukin live in Prokofiev in 2013, I was mightily impressed (review); but the competition is just too fierce in this repertoire for this disc to flourish.

Colin Clarke

Previous reviews: Michael Cookson ~ Jonathan Woolf



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