on 25 February 2014
I rate this newcomer into a dense field of "Tchaikovsky No.One" recordings at : 5 stars for the Second Piano Concerto, and 3 stars for the First Piano Concerto, the warhorse concerto to end all concert warhorses, as fresh and original today as when it was born from the genius of Tchaikovsky in 1874. I have to confess that this Matsuev/Gergiev CD is my 121st recording of the 1st, and my 30th of the second, having lived with the B flat minor, Op. 23, since I was a boy 60 years ago, and with the G major, Op.44, for some 55 years. My earliest recordings of the epic 1st were : a truncated 78r.p.m record of highlights from the 1st Movement, played by the Puerto-Rican pianist Jesus Maria Sanroma with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under an unnamed conductor, - followed (when I had managed to save enough pocket-money to buy my first 33r.p.m. mono Decca vinyl LP) by Julius Katchen's incredible performance (but poorly recorded) with the London Symphony Orchestra under Pierino Gamba, the teenage Italian conductor (made in 1958) . Katchen pulls off one of the most fantastic feats in the history of recorded piano playing, when he cascades through the first cadenza of the First Movement in a burst of lightning pyrotechnics which I've never heard rivalled since. The first live concert performance I ever attended, to hear the piece played on stage in Glasgow when I was 13, featured as soloist the venerable Dutch virtuoso Cor de Groot. As for the 2nd Concerto, for many years the only recording available was that of Shura Cherkassky, with the Berlin Philharmonic under Richard Kraus. So naturally that's ingrained in my memory and affections, despite the fact that Cherkassky, like all pianists who bothered with it at all in those days, used the cut Siloti edition.
Forgive these reminiscences. Matsuev has recorded both these concertos before, in a commemorative 22-disc set celebrating performances by the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra under their conductor Rico Saccani. That box is a wonderful investment, by the way. There is no doubt that Denis Matsuev is one of today's most spectacular virtuosi, and any disc of his is certain to amaze pianophiles with its displays of unbelievable power, stamina, digital perfection and, most of the time, poetic flair. And in this offering of the unjustly neglectd Second Piano Concerto, he delivers spadefulls of astounding pianist brilliance and laser-accuracy, so as to rocket this performance into the top 3, in my opinion. It scores, I may add, over the Stephen Hough rendition, in adopting a more sane, less frantically furious speed for the balletic dance of the last movement. The CD is worth the purchase for this version of No.2 alone. But here's my complaint : the No. 1 is disturbingly idiosyncratic, and could not be recommended a 'one and only library choice.' This is because the tempi in the first movement are distinctly odd at many points, erring towards lethargy and almost slowdown-to-a-standstill at times. Why this was agreed by our two stellar artists, Gergiev and Matsuev, is a mystery to me. I guess that when a renowned artist releases a great, multi-recorded masterpiece upon the world, that anybody with any musical appreciation knows backwards, he (or she) probably feels they have to make their own "statement" and justify the effort by stamping some special characteristic on the performance that will make people sit up agog and have them foaming at the mouth with enthusiasm. But the risk is that what comes out will just be written off as an aberration , a curiosity that will not stand up to repeated listenings. That's what's happened here, I'd say. Extreme alterations to accepted tempi have been allowed to distort the onward surge and flow of the score too often - in the long FIRST Movement. The Second and Third Movements, however, are pretty amazing and don't suffer in this way. But the very timing of the First Movement, 22'02" tells you something has gone wrong. Matsuev's previous disc with Saccani has 21'08" for the opening movement. But compare Horowitz - with Toscanini in 1943, he despatched the first movement in19'01", and 10 years later with Szell, he cut it to 18'23". The incandescence of these historic recordings is unique, and no lover of the work would want to be without either of Horowitz's romps through the old warhorse. Sadly, he never showed any interest in performing No.2 far less No.3 or the Concert Fantasy!
So there we have it, in my personal judgment - DYNAMITE and DISAPPOINTMENT (verging on DRUDGERY) in Nos. 2 and 1 respectively. What a piece, though, which with the Rachmaninov 3 sits enthroned on the twin pinnacle of Greatest Piano Concerti Ever Written. What a discovery to rock the world of music-lovers it would be if some ancient recording of Rachmaninov playing the Tchaik. One were unearthed!! We know it was in his repertoire.