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Piotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23 (1874-5) [34:34]
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G, Op. 44 (1879-80) [44:15]
Mélodie Zhao (piano), L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Michail Jurowski
rec. 2013, Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland
CLAVES 50-1603 [78:49]

The Swiss-Chinese pianist Mélodie Zhao makes a fine showing in Tchaikovsky's first two piano concerti. Her instincts are lyrical -- though her rubatos can be fitful -- and, at first, I feared she might prove underpowered, but no fear: she brings plenty of tonal amplitude to the larger-framed passages of both scores, especially in the G major, a weightlifter's piece. Her articulation of rapid figurations, crystalline yet tonally fluid, stands out; her relish of such passages actually leads her to underpedal them. She plays the upward arpeggios in the First Concerto's opening movement "dry," for example, but they still sound liquid and bubbly. (The big octave response to the orchestral interlude, however, is actually overpedaled.) Zhao's Andantino semplice. is prosaic, but the scherzando middle section is lilting; her runs in the finale are stunningly clear. In the finale of the G major, Zhao is actually frolicsome.

The problems are subtler, and they come with the conducting, Michail Jurowski, scion of a Russian musical family, has the right ideas, and finds opportunities for sensitive phrasing, but he falls short as an accompanist. It's not that he can't follow his soloist: when the piano and orchestra are both going, he's with her just fine. Rather, he doesn't always "pick up the cues," as they say in the theatre: dovetails between piano and orchestra are slightly muffed. More than once, Zhao has to strain to connect with a sluggish orchestral pickup. She plays the big cadenza in the G major impressively, for example, but, as it winds down, she breaks the momentum, slows down, and methodically hammers out the high octaves, as if to help set up the orchestra's entrance. It's like a relay race where the next runner fumbles the baton without quite dropping it.

It was nice to reacquaint myself with the G major concerto, which I'd not heard in years. It's a good piece, although without the ear-grabbing appeal of the popular B-flat minor. The central Andante non troppo is almost a triple concerto for violin, cello, and piano, supported by the rest of the orchestra. Zhao and Jurowski play it uncut; everyone plays it beautifully -- the orchestral strings have a cushiony warmth -- but it does go on.

The Suisse Romande orchestra sounds attractive, although the woodwinds, save for the solo flute, frequently sound recessed, or otherwise obscured in the recorded balance.

Stephen Francis Vasta

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