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on 10 December 2014
I was not forewarned that Chandos was bringing this set out and so was delighted when it came my way.

Like some of the other reviewers, I have known these pieces for a long time, both in recording and as sheet music, and lamented their absence from the concert platform since the composer's death (ninety years ago now). Clearly, any one of the four of the would take a Proms audience by storm: so why not, one has to ask. Maurice Hinson's guide to piano and orchestra repertoire, published by the University of Indiana Press, confirms the position when it explains that these four pieces were once very popular indeed until the concertos of Rachmaninoff gradually replaced them, which, Hinson goes on to say, is a pity, as they are in some ways more interesting than others which are often played in public today.

It is a curious thing in the concert hall that, although there is flexibly distending capacity for additional symphonies, it seems that for one to hear a new, or indeed an existing but neglected piano concerto and for it to enter the main circuit, another has to be dropped or take a back seat. I have never understood this, but Hinson confirms it and there must be a way of breaking this senseless situation. We should then hear more Scharwenka, more Medtner, more Dohnanyi, more Bowen, and more Martinu. We might even be treated to Tchaikovsky's second piano concerto for a change.

Xaver Scharwenka was a true nineteenth century extrovert in the grandest manner, knocking about in royal palaces across Europe, friends with Liszt, endlessly energetic in his public and private life, founding a top-notch conservatoire along the way. His memoirs are amongst the funniest and most entertaining and, as with Harpo Marx, one genuinely wishes he was still with us. He not only looked the part, but he was a transcendental pianist in the Chopin mould and his music sounds a little like Chopin but much more up to date and with 1000% better orchestration than his predecessor ever achieved in his two enigmatic piano concertos. In short, Scharwenka's four concertos are not in any sense "old hat"; instead, they achieve more than sufficient melodic, pianistic, and constructional interest to lift them out of any sense of period feel and into the mainstream. Very often they have you on the edge of your seat and there are some hair-raising and even shocking moments. In his quieter writing in the slow movements of concertos 2, 3, and 4, he is even able to create an elegy approaching something by Mahler, which is a real revelation.

And the recording? Excellent sound as one would expect; mighty but nimble-fingered pianism, fully attuned to the style and onward force of the writing, lavish orchestral playing and impeccable direction from Jarvi, (of course).

You have to get this, or you are missing four of the funnest musical things. They're not just candyfloss, though; they're tremendously exciting, high-quality music.
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on 13 May 2014
From Chandos, we're treated to a fine "twofer" recording of the four piano concertos by the German/Polish composer Xaver Scharwenke, which were written between the years of 1876 and 1908. If you're unfamiliar with the composer's music but enjoy the piano concertos of Grieg, Liszt and Moszkowski, you'll appreciate these works as well.

Scharwenke was born in the Polish-speaking area of Prussia in the mid-19th Century, and lived to see the recreation of Poland at the end of World War I. However, he was pretty wired into the Berlin musical establishment (and a brother, Philipp Scharwenke, was director of one of the music conservatories there). Still, one can hear echoes of Polish dance styles in several movements of these concertos, such as the final movement of the Second. Otherwise, once hears echoes of Brahms and Draeseke on the one hand ... and the flashier pianistic style of Liszt and Moszkowski on the other.

I've known several of these concertos for decades, having become acquainted with Earl Wild's RCA recording of the First Concerto (with the Boston Symphony and Erich Leinsdorf) back in the early 1970s. A few years later, Michael Ponti recorded the Second Concerto for Vox/Candide (with the Hamburg Symphony under Richard Kapp). Much later came Stephen Hough's premiere recording of the Fourth Concerto (1995 -- with Lawrence Foster and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra -- part of Hyperion's Romantic Piano Concerto Series). In between, Seta Tanyel recorded the Second and Third Concertos on Collins Classics -- a recording later licensed to Hyperion for its RPC Series.

All of these recordings were nice to have, if only to give us the opportunity to hear these relative rarities. I feel that two of the concertos are near- if not true-masterpieces (#2 and #4), while #1 has a really effective middle movement (a Scherzo rather than the customary slow movement). Only the Concerto #3 fails to impress me.

Stephen Hough's recording of #4 has been a touchstone one for that concerto, while Michael Ponti's exciting interpretation of #2 is also noteworthy (unfortunately, the orchestra on the Ponti recording sounds thin and under-rehearsed). Earl Wild delivers some flashy playing in #1, but the RCA recording sounds boxy and leaden -- which is very strange because so many other RCA recordings that came out of Boston were sonic spectaculars. Seta Tanyel plods along in both of her recordings, matched by equally earnest-yet-workmanlike support from the Hanover forces, making them an unsatisfying listening experience.

I'm happy to report that the new complete set from Chandos, featuring the Russian pianist Alexander Markovich and Neeme Jarvi conducting the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, consists of very compelling interpretations, well-recorded and boasting fine sonics as well.

To my ears, Mr. Markovich is every bit as effective as Earl Wild in PC #1, and Jarvi's accompaniment is rich and sympathetic. The pianist makes the best possible case for the PC #3, although even he fails to convince me that this particular concerto, which is heavy on "portent" but little else, is on the same plane as the others.

I think Markovich and Hough play to a draw in PC #4. The Hyperion recording is every bit the equal sonically, and I think the CBSO is a touch better on the Hyperion recording.

I'm saving the more "Brahmsian" PC #2 for last. It's my personal favorite of the four concertos, and I've always hoped for a recording that would deliver the pianistic fireworks of Michael Ponti, but backed by a stronger orchestral accompaniment. Not only do Markovich, Jarvi and the ENSO deliver on that score, they go even one better: They treat the music as if it's on the same level as Tchaikovsky's First. (It isn't, but in the process they really turn in a stunning performance.) I have to think that this new recording will generate interest in concert performances of this concerto. Even if you come to this set preferring other Scharwenke concertos over the PC #2, I think you may well end up changing your mind -- the performance is that good.

I have one quibble with the Chandos production: The program notes about the composer and his life and times are pretty skimpy. Scharwenke hardly falls into the category of a composer who "everyone knows," so reserving space to present some of this information would have been helpful. (It's not that there wasn't room to include more biographical information, since the CD booklet contains four full-page ads for other Jarvi/Chandos recordings in addition to a massive vanity photo of the ENSO spread over two pages -- hardly necessary.) Considering the obvious care that went into making these recordings, spending a bit more time crafting the booklet notes should have been a no-brainer.

For now, Chandos is offering this 2-CD set for the price of a single disk. I would heartily recommend this recording at full price, so the special offer makes it absolutely irresistible. Even for people who don't know this music at all, at this special price there's no reason not to experiment!

Kudos to Chandos for bringing these new recordings to us -- and for addressing some weaknesses in the piano concerto discography at the same time.
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VINE VOICEon 3 April 2014
The Scharwenka piano concertos, in my opinion, are every bit as good as those of Saint-Saens, but whilst three of the latter's five always retained some favour with star virtuosos and recording companies, those of Scharwenka inexplicably fell into near-oblivion. This new set of all four Scharwenka concertos is therefore most welcome. If you haven't sampled any of them before, my advice would be to start with his third, and then follow with the fourth, first and second in that order. Although the fourth is generally accounted his finest work the third, in my opinion, is his most attractive and indelible concerto, indeed of all those countless romantic piano concertos that fell by the wayside Scharwenka's third is the one I find the easiest to recall. The slow movement of this concerto must surely rank as Scharwenka's most beautiful creation. But even when his melodic and thematic material isn't always quite top-drawer, as in his second, the musical pyrotechnics never fail to hold the attention.

These are tremendous performances, in no ways inferior to those currently available on the Hyperion label in their Romantic Piano Concerto series. The sheer heft and power of Alexander Markovich's playing will have you pinned to your seat - his account of the third's first movement is impressively muscular and just listen to the dazzling way he dashes off the scherzo of the first concerto (one of Scharwenka's best movements that easily stands comparison with the famous scherzo of Saint-Saens' second) to get the measure of this pianist's virtuosity. However I thought that he and maestro Jarvi were not quite as successful in bringing out the reflective poetic quality of the third's slow movement as Seta Tanyel on the Hyperion release.

The recording venue for these performances (the Nokia Concert Hall in Tallinn) has a rather cavernous acoustic and the orchestra sounds a bit recessed so that orchestral textures are not always ideally clear especially in the louder passages, Thus the majestic orchestral opening of the third seems to emanate from the back of the hall and produces a rather muted effect ( the Hyperion recording again scores extra points here.) And the tone produced by Markovich's piano has a slightly clangy, metallic edge. But I don't want to make too much of these points, they're minor negatives and I don't think there's anything serious enough to spoil your listening pleasure.

I paid a tenner for this 2 disc release although I notice the Amazon price has edged up by about a pound at the time of leaving this review. Certainly at around a tenner this release is a very good bargain and if you're keen to start investigating neglected or forgotten romantic piano concertos then I don't think you need hesitate. Warmly recommended.
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on 31 October 2014
Terrific pianism and very well recorded. The 2nd concerto is the best - a real masterpiece. All of the concerti are worth a listen and the ideas are always fresh and exciting.
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on 20 September 2014
Fantastic find, really pleased with this recording. Regret I have not heard of this composer before. Shades of Chopin here, finely performed by Alexander Markovich.
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on 30 June 2014
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on 29 November 2015
The concerti: brilliant, dazzling, rare gems – get to know your Scharwenka (there’s lots more, although I can’t find a recording of his single opera other than the overture).

The performances: decent – this is not easy stuff for the pianist; the first concerto is dedicated to and was premiered by Franz Liszt.

The recording: dismal beyond belief!

Having owned – first on LP and then on CD – the RCA recording of the first concerto with the unmatchable Earl Wild (who I heard play it live more than 40 years ago and I remember every second of the concert) with Erich Leinsdorf conducting, this is a piece of music I have loved since my youth. I recently got a 4-CD set of Scharwenka’s solo piano music and fell in love with this stuff, so I decided it was past time to get to know the other three concerti.

There seem to be other options (but rather more expensive, as the four concerti are spread out over several discs) than this 2011 Chandos recording, and I shall be seeking them out.

The audio quality on these CDs is less than abysmal: the orchestra is consistently distant and muffled; there is no brightness to the sound, from the orchestra or piano; the piano has so much reverb added to it that Scharwenka’s dazzling flights of virtuosity turn to aural mush. I couldn’t even get through the first concerto. The sound – especially compared with the 1969 RCA recording with Wild and Leinsdorf – is insanely awful for what is supposedly a digital studio audio recording from 2011 (and I have top-of-the-line playback equipment). All those old Decca and RCA and DG (and sometimes EMI) recordings from the 1950s and 1960s (mostly) sound far better in their digital reincarnations.

And then there is Wild. I don’t think anyone will ever bring his passion and virtuosity to this music (the first concerto). He studied with someone who was a protégé of Scharwenka, and learned the concerto at a young age; when he finally was asked to play it, he said, “I’ve been waiting 40 years for this phone call!.” While the pianist on this Chandos set is decent, neither he nor Neemi Järvi is having his best day.

Best advice: first, seek out the Earl Wild disc of the first concerto (when I bought it on CD, it was coupled with a Paderewsk concerto and some Balakirev on the Elan label, licensed from RCA: If you enjoy the piece, then seek out other performances of the second through fourth concerti, but by all means AVOID THIS CHANDOS CD!
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on 28 June 2015
everybody who likes romantic Russian piano concertos should buy this. No 4 is magnificent.
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on 19 April 2015
These are fresh vibrant and exciting recordings.
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