Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 (CD review)

Also, Grieg: Piano Concerto in A minor. Stewart Goodyear, piano; Stanislav Bogunia, Czech National Symphony. Steinway & Sons 30035.

What do you get when you have one of the world's hot young concert pianists playing two of the world's great Romantic piano concertos and recorded by one of the world's best recording companies? You get exactly what you would expect: a worthwhile new recording of some familiar music.

The hot young concert pianist is Canadian Stewart Goodyear, who, according to his bio, "began his training at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, received a bachelor's degree from Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and completed a Masters Degree at Juilliard School of Music in New York. Now calling New York his home, Stewart has performed with the major orchestras of the world, including the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and the Philadelphia Orchestra." Should I add, he is very good.

The two great piano pieces are the Concerto for Piano No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23 by Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) and the Concerto for Piano in A minor, Op. 16 by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907). The recording company is Steinway & Sons, whose name needs no introduction.

First up is the Tchaikovsky, finished it in 1875, and revised 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. I think he'd like what Goodyear does with it.

Make no mistake: This is among the most assured, dynamic, exciting interpretations of the Tchaikovsky I've heard. Whether it conveys all of the pathos the composer intended, though, I'm not certain. It's perhaps not a recording for everyone. But for the Tchaikovsky connoisseur who has a shelf full of competing versions of the score, it makes a welcome addition.

Not only does Goodyear exercise a good deal of enthusiastic zeal in the performance, there's a wonderfully poetic quality from time to time, too. However, understand that Goodyear's style is to move forward at all times, so he doesn't always slow down to a poetic gait very often. I found myself wishing he would, because as thrilling as his reading can be, it also becomes a bit wearying after a while. Still, his finger work is so impressive, it's almost spellbinding, and he held this listener in thrall for most of the performance.

Goodyear well captures the rapture and glory of the opening movement's various harmonies and rhapsodies and does so with an elegant élan as well as a vigorous manner. His rubato is extremely expressive as he and Maestro Stanislav Bogunia vary the speeds just enough to suit the moods and needs of the artists and the music. The contrasts (some gently nuanced, others seriously open) the musicians provide in tempo, dynamics, and phrasing are generally appealing and go a long way toward selling the music.

In the second movement, again with its varying tones and feelings, Goodyear seems well attuned to the composer's flexible shifts, with most of it sounding nicely bucolic. Then the pianist dashes off with great abandon into the furious finale, once more dazzling the listener with his virtuosity. Nevertheless, as I say, I don't know that I could recommend Goodyear as a first choice in this concerto, what with pianists like Cliburn, Argerich, Giles, Wild, and others having served it so well; but certainly one should hear Goodyear's account. Who knows: It could become a personal favorite.

As a coupling, there's the Grieg Piano Concerto. Completed in 1868, it was the only piano concerto the man ever wrote. Fortunately, he made it count, and it's taken its rightful place in the piano repertoire ever since. As he did the Tchaikovsky, Goodyear attacks the Grieg with a good deal of vitality, yet never does one feel that he is rushing anything. While there is perhaps some small loss of Nordic winter in the performance, which tends to come across as more red-blooded Russian than Norwegian, there is, nevertheless, a compensating earthiness about the work's folk-dance and folk-song qualities.

It's good to hear a musician who is willing to plunge headlong into pieces of music as Goodyear does. He seems to be throwing caution to the wind and just having a good time. His enthusiasm is infectious.

Producer Milan Puklicky and engineers Stanislav Baroch and Vojtech Komarek made the recording at CNSO Studio No. 1, Prague in July 2013, and Steinway & Sons released the disc in 2014. The sound they obtained is very clear, very clean, and extremely solid. The overall effect is smooth and mildly warm, about what you would expect from a live performance. Additionally, I found it a tad close, piano and orchestra, with a slight emphasis (especially during the Tchaikovsky) on the left side of the sound stage. Impact is strong; bass, treble, and image depth are more than adequate; and midrange transparency is quite fine, without being in any way forward, bright, or edgy. A modest ambient bloom sets off the music in a most lifelike way.

JJP

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.

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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