11 February 2014

CD REVIEW: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – PIANO CONCERTOS NOS. 1 & 2 (Denis Matsuev; Mariinsky MAR0548)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - PIANO CONCERTOS (Mariinsky MAR0548)

PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 – 1893) – Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23 (1874 – 75) and Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Major, Op. 44 (1879 – 80, Revised Version); Denis Matsuev, piano; Mariinsky Orchestra; Valery Gergiev [Recorded in the Concert Hall of the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia in March (Concerto No. 2) and April (Concerto No. 1) 2013; Mariinsky MAR0548; 1 SACD, 78:32; Available from LSO, Amazon, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

To mix cinematic metaphors, his endeavors outside of his native Russia have often caused conducting giant Valery Gergiev to seem a rebel without a cause. It is both impossible to question the legitimacy of the esteem in which he is held in virtually every musical center in the world and possible to be slightly bewildered by it. Many of his performances of non-Russian repertoire have displayed an almost willful idiosyncrasy, even when his masteries of the music at hand and of orchestral colors were indisputably in evidence. In Russian music, however, Maestro Gergiev exhibits an insightful command of rhythms, tonal blends, and thematic development, and in the music of Tchaikovsky—especially, as this disc confirms, the Piano Concerti—he finds an ideal fount for his most polished artistry. The power of the conductor’s insightful approach to Tchaikovsky’s music is felt in every moment of this recording, but Maestro Gergiev also proves an unexpectedly sensitive partner to the pianist’s expansive but delicate readings of the Concerti. Among many admirable qualities, one of the foremost achievements of this recording is the preservation of Maestro Gergiev’s conducting at its finest.

Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerti are among the most frequently-heard works in the concerto repertoire, both in performance and on disc. With stirring accounts by many of the most celebrated pianists of the past century filling an impressive discography, the popularity of the Concerti has persisted throughout the 120 years since Tchaikovsky’s death. The Herculean technical demands of the music have not prevented occasional performances by pianists not up to the task, as well as a number of performances in which fine pianism is undermined by poor orchestral playing. With Maestro Gergiev, the patriarch of their musical family, conducting with brilliance, the players of the Mariinsky Orchestra give of their best, following every broad stroke of their conductor’s approach and every nuance of the soloist’s interpretations with grandeur and finesse in perfect equilibrium. The nimbleness of the string playing is consistently impressive, and the predictably strong showing by the brass—of heightened importance in Tchaikovsky’s music—is often elating. Maestro Gergiev and the Mariinsky players collaborate to highlight the inventiveness of Tchaikovsky’s orchestrations, providing an eloquent explication of the composer’s inimitable synthesis of elements drawn from European traditions with his own unique idiom, indelibly but flexibly rooted in the indigenous music of Russia.

The First Piano Concerto is one of the most iconic works in the piano concerto literature, and the Second is among Tchaikovsky’s most punctiliously-conceived scores. The composer was devastated by the harsh reception the First Concerto received from Nikolai Rubinstein, the pianist and colleague at the Moscow Conservatory to whom the Concerto’s première was to have been entrusted. The work was ultimately first performed by Hans von Bülow, though in an ironic reversal of fortune Rubinstein eventually championed the piece (and rather disingenuously downplayed his earlier rejection of it) whilst von Bülow ultimately abandoned the Concerto. From his entrance in the first movement (Allegro non troppo e molto maestoso – Allegro con spirito), Russian pianist Denis Matsuev phrases with cleansing purity, leaning into the famous opening theme with dash balanced with restraint. Immediately noticeable is Mr. Matsuev’s faculty for preserving an almost clinical degree of rhythmic accuracy even in the thorny passages in octaves, his command of Tchaikovsky’s sometimes bombastic lines obviously centered on an instinctive grasp of fingering that cannot be taught in any conservatory. There is a bracing sweep to his playing but none of the saccharine over-playing that makes many performances seem caricatured. The second movement (Andantino semplice – Prestissimo) introduces profound contrasts drawn from the score, and here, too, Mr. Matsuev’s phrasing has such a natural sense of movement that the music seems borrowed from one of Tchaikovsky’s ballet scores. The expressivity of Mr. Matsuev’s articulation of rhythmic figurations rivals the most accomplished playing of the movement ever committed to disc, and the integrity of his playing carries over to the third movement (Allegro con fuoco) with unforced vigor. Technically, Mr. Matsuev brings a touch to Tchaikovsky’s music that would serve him equally well in Mozart’s Piano Concerti, and the tactical duality is apt: though unapologetically Romantic in ethos, Tchaikovsky’s Concerti owe much in terms of inner structures and imaginative manipulations of sonata form to the music of Mozart that Tchaikovsky so admired. This is even more evident in the Second Concerto, which was also written with Nikolai Rubinstein in mind for its inaugural interpreter. After Rubinstein’s untimely death, the Concerto was premièred by British-born pianist Madeline Schiller and the New York Philharmonic. There are passages in the Second Concerto in which the piano and orchestra seem almost to inhabit different worlds that only occasionally intersect, but Mr. Matsuev and Maestro Gergiev weave the disparate threads of the piano and orchestra parts into a gorgeously-crafted fabric. In the first movement (Allegro brillante e molto vivace), the complicated, sometimes oblique dialogue between piano and orchestra is elegantly limned by all the players, with Mr. Matsuev finding every emotion in Tchaikovsky’s rhapsodic writing. The second movement (Andante non troppo) bristles with barely-contained energy, the exchanges between piano and solo violin—another balletic pas de deux—delivered with the rapport of two voices in duet. As in the First Concerto, Mr. Matsuev plays the final movement—again marked Allegro con fuoco—with controlled passion that goes directly to the heart of Tchaikovsky’s music, and he puts his personal stamp on the cadenzas without distorting Tchaikovsky’s designs. In his playing of both Concerti, what Mr. Matsuev does most memorably is communicate with the listener via Tchaikovsky’s music in a very direct manner; not in some flamboyantly metaphysical way but in a fashion that begins and ends with the music and, along the course of a very compelling journey, never deviates from the inspiration of the score.

Every listener who loves Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerti will have cherished recordings and strong opinions about which performances succeed and fail as demonstrations of the composer’s genius. Perhaps the principal engrossing pleasure to be had from music is being witness to an occasion upon which all personnel involved with a performance are alert to the significance of the music they are recreating and united in a common goal of achieving something unforgettable. This disc, which in its SACD format offers the listener the perspective of an authentic concert hall acoustic, tenders Tchaikovsky’s First and Second Piano Concerti from the perspective of the most captivating components of the Russian tradition—refined but red-blooded, mysterious and mighty. Checking ego at the door of the Mariinsky Concert Hall, Valery Gergiev is content to be merely a musician, and his proficiency frequently rises to sublimity. Denis Matsuev, not yet forty years old, possesses the kind of uninhibited connection with Tchaikovsky’s music that, at best, is encountered only very rarely. For once, a recording of these colossal Concerti is a deeply personal conversation among pensive musicians rather than a battle of narcissistic virtuosos.