Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 (CD review)

Also, Rachmaninov: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Natasha Paremski, piano; Fabien Gabel, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. RPO SP 044.

Even though I’ve spent many years looking over the monthly release lists for almost all the major record companies and their distributors and received a considerable heap of product for review, it always surprises me how little I know about who’s who and who’s doing what in the music industry. Maybe I’m just dense, or maybe it’s just too hard to keep up with the ever-changing face of the classical music world. In any case, I admit that when the present disc arrived, I did not recognize the name of young Russian-born American pianist Natasha Paremski. After hearing the album, that has certainly changed. She is a talent to be reckoned with, a bright and upcoming star who can hold her own in the company of any pianist. Nor did I recognize the relatively young French conductor Fabien Gabel, currently the Music Director of the Quebec Symphony Orchestra. Hopeless, I know I am. Well, at least I was able to identify London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Thomas Beecham’s old ensemble, so I guess I’m not a complete loss.

Maybe it was a part of his Russian temperament, I don’t know that, either, but Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-93) never seemed satisfied with much of his work, including his popular Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23. He finished it in 1875, revising it in 1879 and again in 1888. It’s possible the composer was just overly sensitive to the criticism that came before and after the concerto’s première, or possibly he didn’t care for the way the first performers played the piece. Who knows. On this disc Ms. Paremski plays the Concerto with Maestro Gabel and the RSO, and I can’t help thinking the composer would have been happy with the results.

Many of the biggest, most-popular piano concertos, the ones from Beethoven, Brahms, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninov, for instance, have a brawny quality about them that might at first blush seem best suited to a masculine performer. However, Martha Argerich among other female pianists pushed that idea aside long ago. I doubt that anyone could accuse Ms. Paremski of not being strong enough in her presentation, which gets off to a grand, bravura start and never lets up. As important, she is able to lend a poise and refinement to the softer moments, something lacking in many competing recordings.

Ms. Paremski handles the second-movement Andantino with a quiet grace and then in the finale goes out with a burst of passion and fire. It may not be the absolute most attention-getting performance ever committed to disc, but Ms. Paremski does everything right, everything one could ask of her in this music, without ever drawing attention to herself with any undue bravura despite her obvious virtuosic piano skills. The performance is fun, exciting, intense, Romantic, and well recorded.

Coupled to the Tchaikovsky we find the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (1934) by Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943). Tchaikovsky predicted that Rachmaninov would be his logical successor, and surely Rachmaninov's symphonies and piano concertos, as well as the Rhapsody prove Tchaikovsky's prescience correct. Again, we find the Paremski, Gabel, RSO combo at the top of their game, producing an affectionate yet red-blooded account of the score. If anything, Ms. Paremski is even more joyously enthusiastic in the Rachmaninov than in the Tchaikovsky.

What's more, Maestro Gabel's conducting supports Ms. Paremski admirably, never upstaging her or her role in the music making, and the RPO play with their usual elegance, producing a rich accompaniment that impeccably complements the performances.

Producer Andrew Walton of K&A Productions and engineer Mike Clements recorded the music at Henry Wood Hall, London in December 2012. The sound is as big and bold as the music. There is a very wide frequency range involved and even wider dynamics. The perspective is somewhat close, yet it's also smooth and natural, with a fine sense of orchestral depth and bloom. Although the piano looms a bit large, to be sure, it also displays a sweet, resonant warmth. Occasionally one notices a slight stridency in the upper strings, but it isn't intrusive. Like the performances, the sound is lush without ever being gushy or sentimental.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa