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Pyotr Il'yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23 (1875) [34.12]*
Concert suite from The Nutcracker, arr. Pletnev [16.01]
Rem Urasin (piano)
*Sydney Symphony/Janos Fürst
rec. 6 July 2004, York Theatre, Seymour Centre, The University of Sydney, and *17 July 2004, Sydney Opera House
ABC CLASSICS (AUSTRALIA) 476271-6 [51.16]

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Rem Urasin is the Russian pianist, born in 1974, who took Second Prize in the 2004 Sydney International Piano Competition. How does the runner-up come to be graced with recorded documentation? He also took the People's Choice Prize, Best Performance of an Australian work, and several other awards in that same contest, as well as being voted ABC Classic FM Listeners' Favorite - so Australian Broadcasting can, probably correctly, assume interest in this issue at home. But how will it stack up for the rest of us?

The concerto - presumably the pianist's major competition piece - begins unpromisingly. The piano's big block chords are stolid and earthbound, seemingly unaware of the broad, lush orchestral melody, for which, as it turns out, the Sydney Symphony strings can't muster sufficient tonal body anyway. Matters improve markedly, however, once past the introduction. Urasin's firm tone and technical dexterity permit him actually to color and layer the piano textures. The rapid passagework sometimes feels held back, not out of any technical insecurity, but because Urasin insists on giving every note full tonal weight; the overall effect remains that of assurance and command. The Andante sings simply and without affectation, with a gossamer central scherzando. A swift, powerful finale caps things nicely, with the dazzling final octave run provoking a deserved ovation.

Why Nutcracker for piano? Perhaps because Tchaikovsky offers recitalists an unappealing choice between the stiffly wrought, knucklebreaking G major Sonata on the one hand and a miscellany of characteristic and children's pieces on the other (although, truth be told, some of the pieces in the Months cycle require considerable skill). Pletnev's selection of seven movements from the complete ballet (not equivalent to the familiar suite, Op. 48a) presumably intends to remedy this situation, though I find it only patchily successful. The brief characteristic dances - the March, Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy, Tarantella, Trepak, and Tea - all come off rather well: Urasin projects them with rhythmic clarity, impeccable balance and stunning articulation. But the two big set pieces are not well chosen: the Act I Intermezzo, fourth in performance order, never rises to the full-throated grandeur of the orchestral original, while, without the resonance of massed ’cellos, the melody of the suite's finale, the great Act II pas de deux, sounds oddly threadbare. Perhaps Pletnev's own playing of these pieces, which I haven't heard, better fills out these textures.

Consider this a document of the pianist, and a promissory note on better things to come, but hardly a basic library acquisition in a crowded catalogue.

Stephen Francis Vasta


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