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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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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 John 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.

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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa