Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 (CD review)

Also, Rococo Variations. Tzimon Barto, piano; Dimitri Maslennikov, cello; Christoph Eschenbach, German Symphony Orchestra, Berlin. Capriccio C5065.

Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-93) never seemed quite satisfied with a good many of his works, and that included his popular Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23. He completed it in 1874-75, revised it in 1879, and then revised it yet again in 1888. It may have been that the composer was simply thin-skinned and could not bear the criticism that came before and after the concerto's première, or maybe he didn't care for the way the first performers played them. In any case, on this disc pianist Tzimon Barto plays the Concerto accompanied by Christoph Eschenbach and the German Symphony Orchestra, Berlin.

The Concerto's opening theme, one of the most famous in all of music, is towering, monumental in nature, often played in a heroic style befitting its scope. Here, Barto approaches it more ruggedly than many other pianists of note. OK, this may be unfair, as the other pianists I have listened to over the past forty or fifty years have been towering figures themselves and attacked the score with a more vigorous elegance than Barto. Compare Cliburn (RCA), Argerich (DG or Philips), Giles (RCA), or Wild (Chesky), and you'll see what I mean. Barto prefers to emphasize exaggerated dynamic contrasts, pregnant pauses, and considerable variants of tempo. Although later in the movement he proceeds at a more conventional pace, he takes a good two to three minutes longer to get through the Allegro than almost anybody else. I suppose you could say that Barto is brawnier in his reading than most others; but, really, it's one thing to bring a noble robustness to a score and another thing to be overindulgent, even in so excessive a score as this one is. Thus, listeners not used to Barto's burly manner may find it a distraction in this interpretation, even an affectation; Barto's fans, however, will undoubtedly love it.

Anyway, I found Barto more successful in the slow second movement, where he doesn't appear to feel so compelled to be lofty at the expense of intensity. Still, even here he applies a good deal of dramatic license to the music so that we sometimes pay more attention to the player than to what he's playing.

In the finale, Barto is lyrical and flowing, with the hints of the opening motif nicely tying the work together. It's a showy piece of music, and Barto is certainly a showman. His performance will either wow an audience, or them shaking their heads.

Tchaikovsky premiered his Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 33, in 1877; however, his theme isn't really an eighteenth-century Rococo type but one Tchaikovsky devised himself in the Rococo style. The music, a theme and seven variations, has a classical-period feel to it, at the same time retaining a thoroughly Romantic mood. While cellist Dimitri Maslennikov handles it nicely, making it appropriately sweet and light, again we get a somewhat heightened rubato, the tempos and accents varying considerably within each section. This makes me wonder if the decision to do so wasn't as much the conductor's as that of the two different soloists in the album's two works.

Capriccio made the recording in Berlin in 2010, the sound as big as the performances. In the concerto the piano is very close, the orchestra spread out behind it in a dazzling accompaniment meant undoubtedly to knock the listener's socks off with its wide stereo spread and huge impact. The piano is, indeed, strong, with excellent clarity and punch; and the orchestral sonics showcase a well-detailed, if somewhat heavy midrange, with a ton of bass energy. If anything, there may be too much upper bass energy, as it tends slightly to veil the lower mids. The cello piece is more transparent, the cello not quite so out in front. In short, this is a kind of superspectacular, blockbuster sound, albeit without too much emphasis on multi-miking.


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