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Tedd Joselson's Companionship of Concertos
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op 16 (1868/9) [31:21]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor, Op 18 (1900/1) [34:12]
Tedd Joselson (piano)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra/Arthur Fagen
rec. November 2019, Abbey Road Studios, London

Not so long ago, this would have been the stuff of dreams; and for some, perhaps it still is. A “legendary” pianist (I quote from the booklet note) playing the two emotionally-charged piano concertos which epitomise the idea of musical Romanticism and which, certainly in the middle years of the last century, had entered the public consciousness (particularly in the UK) for reasons other than musical. The Rachmaninov was immortalised by David Lean’s classic 1945 movie, Brief Encounter, reaching out to, and tugging at, the heartstrings of an audience which would never in a million years have thought about going to hear music by a living Russian-born composer in the concert hall. Then, some 30 years later, the Grieg, already hugely popular, found itself thrust into an arena where classical music was generally wholly alien, by a matchless and brilliant comedy sketch by two former music-hall comedians who made it big in television, Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise. If it is not now the stuff of dreams, we can blame both over-exposure – both concertos have been recorded more times than most other musical works – and changing tastes in an age where sentimentality and nostalgia have largely been usurped by scepticism and cynicism.

And from the very start of the Grieg, it seems that dreams are going to be shattered even more. Tedd Joselson takes a very laid-back approach, oozing out that opening statement and possibly making the RPO timpanist feel a shade embarrassed that he delivered his opening strokes with such menace; as a concerto opener, this is something of a damp squib. I’m not entirely sure things ever really improve during the first movement, and the cadenza seems very world weary. But I suppose Joselson cannot be accused of playing on the work’s popularity, and if nothing else, this is a straightforward and unaffected performance which is, undeniably, magnificently supported by Arthur Fagen and the Royal Philharmonic. And it is Fagen we must thank for an intensely lovely opening to the second movement; relaxing, gently caressing and touching, without over-egging the pathos. Joselson often seems impervious to this lovely orchestral backdrop, his entries seem hard-edged, while his punching out of the big theme injects an aggression which seems rather out of context. For all the fire and excitement of the final movement, one cannot escape a feeling that pianist and conductor are not really on the same wavelength. Listening to this, one cannot help casting one’s mind back to all those really rather fine recordings about which so many of us have become rather blasť. My favourite? Leif Ove Andsnes’ 2003 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic and Mariss Jansons on EMI.

With the opening of the Rachmaninov, things are much more rosy. A surging start from the orchestra (here it’s the Philharmonia) after Joselson’s splendidly measured opening salvo, sets us off on a real rollercoaster of a ride through the various emotional outpourings which make up the Concerto’s first movement. Tempi might often move from one extreme to another, but they are tempered by a lovely feel for rubato – here is playing which lives and breathes organically, and Fagen is utterly in tune with Joselson’s approach – sometimes impetuous, sometimes reflective, sometimes turbulent, and sometimes utterly placid. The wonderful brass outburst at 4:29 has glorious grandeur which sets off Joselson in a flurry of delicate and fluttering fingerwork as the movement builds up to that climactic march (6:29). It fair takes your breath away – and who, in all this excitement, can criticise the odd missed note? Perhaps Fagen’s phrasing of the opening theme of the second movement is a trifle over-done, but otherwise this is a lovely performance, the instrumental solos nicely dovetailed into the ebb and flow of the piano writing. There is a sense that, when it comes to the faster passagework here, Joselson is not entirely at his ease, but taken overall, this movement never loses its magic. Lashings of rubato and waves of sound permeate the third movement; with moments of almost intimate tranquillity pushed aside by great cascades of notes – the little fugal passage (5:19) set off at a startling lick by the violins and athletically taken up by Joselson. It loses focus somewhat but, again, the excitement and thrill of the ride more than compensates for playing which often feels as if it is staying on course by a mere thread.

Anyone who knows Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto probably has their own favourite recording – there are, after all, a myriad from which to choose – but this sprightly account from a veteran pianist whom we all thought had long since given up playing in public, should turn a few heads.

Marc Rochester

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