Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1 (CD review)

Also, Liszt: Le Jeux d'eaux a la Villa d'Este; Sonetto 104 del Petrarca; Reminiscences de Don Juan. George Li, piano; Vasily Petrenko, London Philharmonic Orchestra. Warner Classics 0190295379575.

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.

George Li
The concerto's opening theme, one of the most famous in all of music, is towering, monumental in nature, and often played in a heroic style befitting its scope. Certainly, Li starts off well, with plenty of bravura. Yet as the movement goes on, one senses a few too many fluctuations of tempo and contrast for the whole to stick together fully. The virtuosity is assuredly there, and Li is unquestionably a major talent. It's just that thus far his musical instincts may not have entirely matured as much as they undoubtedly will. I realize why Li and Warner Classics wanted to record the Tchaikovsky for his first orchestral recording, it being the piece that vaulted him to prominence in competition, but I'm not sure he won't re-record it a few years (or decades) from now in an even more coherent and persuasive performance.

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.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

2 comments:

  1. Is there anything we we listener/victims can do to convince producers that we don't need to hear the applause? We can take it as obvious that there was plenty -- when is there ever not? Being forced to hear applause on the recording is just manipulative and breaks whatever spell the performance has established.

    ReplyDelete
  2. In fairness to this particular recording, the engineer has erased any closing applause. But, you're right; too many live recordings leave the applause in, I suppose to remind one of the live event.

    ReplyDelete

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 Jon 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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa