Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 (SACD review)

Also, Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 2. Kirill Gerstein, piano; James Gaffigan, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. Myrios Classics MYR016.

As I've said a number of times before, there has to be some pretty good reason for a person to buy another recording of an old favorite: Usually, the person is an avid collector of everything by a certain composer; possibly, the person thinks the recording in question is better in performance or sound than what he or she has already got; or maybe the person finds the disc's coupling attractive. That's usually. But there is another possibility; namely, that the person is curious about something new or innovative about a new recording. Such is mainly the case with this release from Russian-born pianist Kirill Gerstein, conductor James Gaffigan, and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin.

The "something new" is that Gerstein's recording is the first to use a new edition of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, published by the Tchaikovsky Archive and Museum in Moscow, an edition that derives from the 1879 version of the concerto that the composer himself approved and conducted until his last public appearance in 1893. It seems that the version the rest of us have been hearing all these years is an unauthorized edition containing many alterations added after Tchaikovsky's death. Who'da thunk?

So, how different is this new version? In an accompanying booklet note we learn that sometime after the first and second editions appeared, a young musician played the opening chords for Tchaikovsky on the piano. "That's what you want, isn't it?" he asked the composer. "Why, yes," answered Tchaikovsky. "It's what I've written, isn't it?" The young pianist answered, "No. That's just the point. It's what I've played." The young pianist, Alexander Siloti, a student of Tchaikovsky, had transposed the opening chords of the right hand an octave higher than the composer had originally written them, and that's now part of what we hear today, along with quite few other changes. Is the story true? Who knows? Did I notice the differences in Gerstein's reading? Like the composer in the possibly questionable story, if I hadn't known about the changes, no, I wouldn't have noticed them.

More to the point, did I like this new recording of the concerto, regardless of the edition played? Here, the answer is a little clearer: Not as much as I'd liked. The Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto requires a good deal from any pianist in the way of sheer virtuosity, and I have no doubt Mr. Gerstein handles that part of the show admirably. He was, after all, the first prize winner of the Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition in 2001, received a Gilmore Young Artist Award in 2002, and became a Carnegie Hall "Rising Star" for 2005–2006. The man undoubtedly has talent.

But the concerto contains bravura, pathos, heroism, and lyricism in equal measures, and I'm afraid that whether it's because Gerstein plays a new edition or whether the sound lets him down, the performance seemed rather underwhelming to me. This is especially the case as I had just a few weeks before listened to the extremely outgoing rendition by Stewart Goodyear, which, to be fair, sounded much better recorded to me.

Nevertheless, I can't imagine anyone taking objection to Gerstein's performance, which is still quite accomplished. It's just that the competition is so intense in this work that it's hard for any newcomer to make an impression. That said, Gerstein's account of Tchaikovsky's original score provides a more lyrical, more-poetic vision than most I've heard, and that in itself may be enough to persuade potential buyers to sample the performance. I especially liked the slow second movement, with its graceful, lilting lines and moderately paced middle section.

In compensation for any minor lack of overt brilliance or flashy showmanship in the Tchaikovsky, Goldstein offers as a coupling the Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 16, by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). Prokofiev completed it in 1913, but about ten years later a fire destroyed the original composition, and Prokofiev had to reconstruct and revise the piece from a piano score. So, interestingly, on this album Mr. Gerstein plays two works in their revised editions.

At the time of its premiere, some listeners loved the wild excitement of Prokofiev's new piece, while others found it too jarring and "modern." Today, we sort of take it all for granted. Nevertheless, Gerstein was wise to pair the two works, one of them representing the end of a musical age and the second of them the beginning of another.

Anyway, with the Prokofiev, Gerstein enters a different musical world altogether, one that he handles with thought and care yet with a good deal of enthusiasm as well. His finger work is remarkable, and his ability to make the work come alive without sounding particularly unsettling is most welcome in a piece of music that can sometimes just sound loud and noisy. Under Gerstein's control, it remains quite adventurous and tempestuous while retaining an elegant grace and sensitivity.

Producers Stephan Cahen and Rainer Pollmann and engineers Stephan Flock and Stephan Cahen recorded the concertos at Funkhaus Berlin Nalepastrasse Saal 1, in June 2014. They released the disc for hybrid SACD playback, meaning if you have an SACD player, you can play it in multichannel or two-channel, and if you have a regular CD player, you can play it in regular two-channel stereo. I listened to the SACD two-channel layer using a Sony SACD player.

The sound the engineers obtained is big and warm and a little soft, so you don't get an abundance of sparkling detail. What's more, dynamics and impact are only moderate, so we also don't hear all of the excitement of some competing recordings. Depth perception in the orchestra is excellent, however, and the engineers have nicely balanced the piano with the ensemble to produce a lifelike result. Although this is more easy-listening than purely audiophile sound, it is comfortable and natural and miked from a modest distance. Overall, it's fairly realistic sound, specifically in terms of frequency response and front-to-back dimensionality. I enjoyed it.


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