Tchaikovsky has often been described as the composer of grand light music.
When I first heard this concerto forty years ago I was taken by the slow
movement, where there are extended passages for a piano trio, and it reminded
me of the Palm Court Orchestra and Max Jaffa. To my mind, Tchaikovsky's finest
works are not the ballets or the works with 'good tunes' but the operas,
chamber music and particularly his exquisite songs. He did not write well
for the piano (see my interview
with Peter Katin) and it is a curious thing that his most popular works are
not his best works. He was, however, very fluent resulting in his music sounding
very 'natural'; but he was also a superb technician particularly in remote
keys e.g. the Piano Concerto No 1 is in Bb minor and the mellow Quartet no
3 is in Eb minor.
The First Piano Concerto is structurally an enigma. It begins with four minutes
of that 'big tune' which is never heard again. The Second Piano Concerto
is more coherent and logical and demands a pianist of exceptional skill,
virtuosity and warmth. But it is not just the right notes and tempo but an
understanding of this unfolding drama. Boyde makes detail come to life; he
has an amazing capacity to build up long piano solos thereby making them
full of interest. His cadenzas are breathtaking and the clarity of his finger
work is stunning. And, thankfully, he is not a barnstorming, glamorous, athletic
performer, although he generates tremendous excitement. He has enviable lyrical
gifts and I have to say that, bearing in mind that this is a public performance
(where one does not get a 'second chance'), it is very impressive indeed.
The orchestra and conductor must also be congratulated.
The slow movement can wallow into cheap sentimentality if a strict tempo
is not observed. I once read a review that stated that Tchaikovsky was inspired
to write this movement after hearing the slow movement of Brahms' cherished
Double Concerto. Tchaikovsky wrote his work in 1880, Brahms in 1887! In this
movement Boyde and Fritzch combine effectively to prevent the music deteriorating
into cheap Johann Strauss confectionary. While the performers avoid these
pitfalls they also capture the warm mellowness. We have music, not an indulgence
in mawkishness. There are, however, moments of tender beauty and the pianists
clever timing of his entries enhances the music's expectations.
The finale Allegro con fuoco is a brilliant tour de force. Many pianists
who refuse to play this concerto stating that they do not like it, are hiding
the truth that they cannot play it. And this is one reason why the work stayed
on the shelf for a long time. I would have preferred a stronger attack in
this movement but this is more than adequately compensated for by the sparkling
clearness. Then, all of a sudden, the performance explodes - a marvellous
moment - and the work rushes on to an exhilarating and ruthless conclusion.
I hope Boyde may consider performing Tchaikovsky's other fine piano and orchestra
work, the Concert Fantasy of 1884 also in G major. Peter Katin's unrivalled
performance with Boult is still available, fortunately.
Shostakovich Symphony No 9 is sometimes maligned for being 'lightweight'
but as with the unsurpassed finale of his Symphony No 6, of which Fritz Reiner's
version is, by far, still the best, Shostakovich introduces a burlesque sense
of humour probably to counteract the repressive Stalin regime.
I was brought up on Mravinsky's performance and so, rightly or wrongly, I
judge all performances by that. Perhaps Fritzch's performance may occasionally
lack some finesse but when one considers the amazing detail he reveals and
his excellent control and balance this seems insignificant. There are some
superlative woodwind solos and the intonation throughout is remarkably secure
but I found the tempi rather cautious.
The exemplary recording greatly aids the clarity of detail.
See previous review of this disc by Rob