I usually avoid live recordings. I don't think they sound as realistic, as natural, as a good studio recording. But I also understand today's economic situation, and I understand it's hard for even the biggest record companies to produce financially marketable products with the high costs involved for studio time, musicians' contracts, and the like. So, we have what we have, probably half or more of all orchestral recordings done during live performances, this one from pianist George Li, Maestro Vasily Petrenko, and the Royal Philharmonic made during a concert at London's Royal Festival Hall. The solo Liszt pieces were done in a studio, though, so all is not lost, and to be fair, the concerto comes off well enough, too.
So, first, who is George Li? He's a young (b. 1995) American concert pianist who made his solo debut at the age of eight and his orchestral debut at nine. Then he placed second at the 2015 International Tchaikovsky Competition (the same competition Van Cliburn won in 1958) and received an Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2016. Yes, like so many young musicians these days, he's got the credentials, and he has played with numerous international orchestras ever since. This Tchaikovsky/Liszt album is his second release, and the Tchaikovsky is his first with orchestra.
The program begins with Tchaikovsky's ever-popular Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23. Yet the composer never seemed satisfied with it. He completed it in 1874-75, revised it in 1879, and then revised it yet again in 1888. It may have been that Tchaikovsky was simply thin-skinned and could not bear the criticism that came before and after the concerto's première, or maybe he didn't care for the way the first performers played it. Whatever, audiences seemed to like the piece more as the years wore on, and today it one of the best-known piano concertos in the world.
Pianists on record have interpreted the second, slow movement in a variety of ways, with some zipping through it in as little six minutes and others taking a more leisurely approach in as much as eight minutes. Li takes a middle ground (literally) at about seven minutes in an interpretation that may not mark any new ground but comes off well enough. It has a lovely lyrical grace that is splendidly communicated.
The final Allegro con fuoco is both fiery and lyrical by turns, a general romp. Here, as in the first movement, Li starts off well enough, with dazzling finger work, and continues the exercise with consistency through to the end. Maestro Petrenko and his orchestra seem equally up to the task and back up Li with vigor, enthusiasm, and good humor. For the most part, the movement is a solid, red-blooded account of the score that seldom lets go of its grip on the listener.
That said, it's probably still the concerto's first movement that many listeners cherish and remember most, and Li's interpretation of it does not displace those of Cliburn (RCA/JVC), Horowitz (RCA), Argerich (DG, Philips), Giles (RCA), Wild (Chesky), and others in a very competitive field. However, there remains the Liszt works below, which may be worth the price of the disc.
Accompanying the Tchaikovsky, Li has chosen three solo pieces by Franz Liszt: Le Jeux d'eaux a la Villa d'Este; Sonetto 104 del Petrarca; and Reminiscences de Don Juan. Although Liszt originally wrote them as vocal pieces with accompaniment, he later transcribed them for piano alone. As with most of Liszt's work, they are colorful and pictorial, and Li takes advantage of it. In fact, I enjoyed Li's Liszt readings more than I did the Tchaikovsky concerto. His incredible technique is captivating, and, unlike the Tchaikovsky, he seems able here to convey a more consistent impression of the composer's poetry and beauty. Although the subject matter of the Liszt pieces may seem at odds with the more flamboyant work of Tchaikovsky, it's well worth hearing. Indeed, it made me wish Li had done a whole album of Liszt, with maybe Liszt's first piano concerto rather than Tchaikovsky's.
Executive producer Alain Lanceron and the team of Philip Burwell and Chris Muir recorded the piano concerto live at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London in March 2019; and producer Antonio Oliart recorded the solo pieces at Fraser Performance Studio, WGBH, Boston in July 2019.
As expected, the concerto recording is fairly close, with the piano quite dominant. Also as expected it is very dynamic, which goes a long way toward mitigating the closeness. Surprising, perhaps, there is also a small but welcome degree of hall ambience present, and the sound is reasonably warm and smooth. The piano sound is lifelike enough, although seeming to recede and advance occasionally, while the orchestral clarity is a tad muffled in addition to being somewhat one-dimensional. The editors mercifully expunged any closing applause from the conclusion of the concerto.
In the studio-recorded Liszt, the piano is as smooth as we heard it in the concerto, and it's miked at enough a distance to provide it with a natural warmth.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: