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Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Piano Concerto in C-sharp for one hand, Op 17 (1922) [28:38]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Variations on Là ci darem la mano for piano and orchestra, Op 2 (1829) [17:26]
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Piano Concerto in C-sharp minor, Op 30 (1882-1883) [13:37]
Orion Weiss (piano)
The Orchestra Now/Leon Botstein
rec. details not given
BRIDGE 9547 [59:58]

When releasing a disc with repertoire as stylistically mixed as this one, it surely helps to think of a usefully descriptive portmanteau title to convince prospective buyers that there’s some sort of rationale behind the whole exercise. Unfortunately, on this occasion the somewhat meaningless Piano protagonists isn’t a great deal of help. Musicologist Peter Laki’s booklet notes gamely claim that its three works exhibit a common theme. He suggests that “in each, the virtuoso genre becomes a means by which the composer responds to a specific source of inspiration”. I remain, however, unconvinced. After all, mere common sense suggests that virtually all compositions, virtuoso or not, have been the result of some specific inspiration, if only - and, I suspect, rather more often than we’d like to think - the expectation of financial reward.

In fact, such unity as this disc exhibits results not from the repertoire but from the fact that performances of the three works by the same artists were given at successive Bard Music Festivals in 2017, 2018 and 2019. We are not told whether they were recorded live at the time or else subsequently in the studio, but I cannot detect any extraneous noise and the disc’s sound quality is, while a little lacking in sparkle, perfectly acceptable.

Orion Weiss’s performances are uniformly well played and engaging, if, ultimately, without a particularly distinctive edge. He is at his best in the Korngold concerto for one hand that opens the disc, encompassing its technical challenges with aplomb while successfully shaping its disparate styles and moods into a coherent whole. Many MusicWeb readers will, I suspect, already own Marc-André Hamelin’s account with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä, a release reviewed very positively by my colleagues Rob Barnett (review) and Grace Lace (review). While Orion Weiss’s new account is certainly both idiomatic and well delivered, it doesn’t, I think, surpass Hamelin’s expert and notably well recorded performance.

There is equally tough competition in both other pieces. My own preferred version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s piano concerto was recorded as long ago as 1968 by Igor Zhukov and the USSR Radio and TV Large Symphony Orchestra under Gennady Rozhdestvensky (subsequently digitally remastered on MK 417087). Zhukov plays the solo part with immense virtuosic bravura, while Rozhdestvensky keeps the Soviet orchestra under tighter rein than many of his contemporaries were wont to do. Nonetheless, the characteristically brash orchestral sound adds an attractive Russian tinge that’s typical of performances from that place and time. While listeners more accustomed to the 21st century’s homogenised international performance style may recoil, those more sympathetic to historical idiosyncrasies may well consider that Weiss’s account simply doesn’t sound “Russian” enough.

The Chopin variations may also disappoint some listeners. For comparison, I took two other accounts off my shelves – the first by Idil Biret, accompanied by the Czecho-Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra (Košice) under Robert Stankovsky (Naxos 8.550369), and the second by Janne Mertanen and the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jani Telaranta (Alba ABCD 335). Listening to the very opening of the piece proves a most instructive exercise, for whereas both Biret and Mertanen convey a sense of inventive spontaneity as they spin magical webs of dreamy musical poetry, Weiss is rather more prosaic. While some might argue that a penny-plain approach suits a composition by a tyro 17 years old composer who was yet to perfect the sophisticated style of his maturity, others will, I suspect, regret Weiss’s relatively forthright and matter-of-fact delivery. I must admit to falling into the latter camp.

Mr Weiss is clearly an accomplished pianist. The fact that he was re-engaged for successive Bard Music Festivals presumably indicates that his performances went down well with the live Hudson Valley audiences. Nevertheless, I’m afraid that, for repeated listening at home, these recorded accounts emerge as somewhat lacking in individuality and do not displace my other recommendations.

Rob Maynard

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