Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 (XRCD24/K2 review)

Also, Franck: Symphonic Variations. John Ogdon, piano; Sir John Barbirolli, Philharmonia Orchestra. Hi-Q Records HIQXRCD37.

About the time I first began seriously collecting classical recordings in the early 1960's, there were four young pianists I remember just coming along: Van Cliburn, who won the First International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958; Maurizio Pollini, who won the International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in 1960; and Vladimir Ashkenazy and John Ogdon, who shared the first prize in the 1962 International Tchaikovsky Competition. While Cliburn, Pollini, and Ashkenazy went on to become giants in the classical world, British pianist Ogdon experienced less good fortune. Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder disrupted his life in the early 1970's, and he died in 1989 of pneumonia, brought on by undiagnosed diabetes.

Fortunately, we have the magic of records to preserve at least some of Ogdon's work, although the present disc is perhaps not the very best of his legacy. For a man who had co-won the Tchaikovsky Competition, he seems more than a bit reticent about showing off his skills in this 1962 Tchaikovsky recording.

Anyway, the star attraction on the program is the Concerto for Piano No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23, by Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). He finished it in 1875, then revised it in 1879 and again in 1888. Tchaikovsky may have just been overly sensitive to the criticism that came before and after the concerto's première, or maybe he didn't care for the way the first performers played the piece. Whatever the case, the final version has become a staple, perhaps THE staple, of the concert-piano stage, and it requires a good deal of virtuosic bravura for performers to find a place for themselves among the many competing recordings of the work. Here, Ogdon never lacks for virtuosity; it's his bravado that's oddly lacking.

It's possible, of course, that Ogdon wanted to show the world that the Tchaikovsky work was more than just a grandiose blockbuster, which is why he may have put on the brakes and gone after a less-robust, more sensitive reading. I dunno; it just doesn't make the impression on the listener the way some competing performances do.

Ogdon opens the concerto with a properly grand flourish, and Maestro Sir John Barbirolli adds some strong support throughout, but from a few minutes in, Ogdon's reading seems curiously underpowered. His finger work remains dazzling, of course, yet he appears more interested in clarity and articulation than in stirring up any red-blooded interpretation. Not that this is bad, mind you, just different. And, surprisingly, it doesn't appear to have anything to do with the overall lengths of the movements, which remain well within the boundaries of average for this work; it's more a matter of pauses and general rubato, abrupt changes in tempo and such that give the impression of slackness in the whole.

Still, this approach works wonderfully well in the second-movement Andantino semplice, where Ogdon's carefully crafted, poetic approach is simplicity itself--very affecting, touching, lyrical, serene, a tad playful, and utterly charming.

However, with Ogdon the closing Rondo doesn't quite capture the lighthearted romp Tchaikovsky might have imagined. Again, Ogdon's technical artistry is never in question; it's that he seems unnecessarily serious, even though Barbirolli appears to be prodding him to loosen up.

The coupling, Cesar Franck's Symphonic Variations, comes off better than the concerto. Maybe it's the more-poetic nature of the music that suited Ogdon's frame of mind when he recorded it. Whatever, both Ogdon and Barbirolli seem of one accord here, with the Philharmonia, as always, playing brilliantly. There's a delicacy and balance to the performance that is most beguiling.

The folks at Hi-Q provide another of their classy packages, using a glossy, hard-cardboard Digipak-type container with the disc and booklet notes fastened within.

Producers Victor Olof and Ronald Kinloch Anderson and engineer Robert Gooch originally recorded the music for EMI at No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London in December 1962. Tohru Kotetsu, Shizuo Nomiyama, and Kazuo Kiuchi remastered the album using 24-bit Super Analog XRCD24 processing and K2 replication at the JVC Mastering Center, Japan in 2014. From the opening notes, there is no question this remaster is one of the best-sounding recordings of the Tchaikovsky you'll find. There is a huge dynamic range, with thundering climaxes and whisper-quiet soft passages. What's more, there is a pleasant warmth about the music, good impact, decent midrange transparency, shimmering highs, and only the faintest touch of tape hiss.

If I have any reservation, however, it's that the sound field in the Tchaikovsky piece tends to favor the left side, with the piano and virtually all of the strings slightly to the left of center. I suppose this is the way the engineers recorded it, so I shouldn't fuss. But I immediately worried that perhaps either my playback equipment or my ears were at fault. A quick listen to three other recordings of the Tchaikovsky confirmed, however, that it was, indeed, a minor issue with the Hi-Q/EMI recording; the other CD's sounded appropriately centered. Nonetheless, it is, as I say, a trivial concern in a recording of such otherwise exemplary audio; if it bothers you, just turn your balance control a decibel or two to the right. The Franck piece sounds nicely centered, though; go figure.

For some of the best prices and availability of Hi-Q products, you might want to visit Elusive Disc at http://www.elusivedisc.com/.

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.

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