Tchaikovsky Piano Concertos No.1-3, Solitude – Stephen Hough, Osmo Vänskä

PYOTR ILICH TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat minor, Op 23
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G major, Op 44
Piano Concerto No. 3 in E flat major, Op 75
Solitude, Op 73 no 6 (arr. Stephen Hough)
None but the Lonely Heart, Op 6 no 6 (arr. Stephen Hough)

Piano Concerto No 2: Andante non troppo (ed. Alexander Siloti)

Piano Concerto No 2: Andante non troppo (ed. Stephen Hough)

Stephen Hough, piano

Minnesota Orchestra

Conducted by Osmo Vänskä

65:39 + 75:31

Full price—two discs

Hyperion CDA67711/2

Live performance

By Jon Yungkans

Stephen Hough

These exceptional performances are marred by muddy sonics. Hyperion Records had a prime opportunity to catch pianist Stephen Hough in live performances of all three concertos and the Concert Fantasy by Tchaikovsky, and the sound on previous releases on the label’s Romantic Piano Concerto series has generally ranged from good to exceptional. What happened this time? Perhaps in an effort to include more of a hall ambience, it sounds like the recording engineers recorded further back in the hall than normal Unfortunately, it appears they recorded too far back in the hall. The result is that the orchestra is reduced to an amorphous presence behind the soloist. More prominent solos, such as the flute in the First Piano Concerto, are still audible but much less distinct than usual. Much detail in the orchestral, and some of the piano figuration, is blurred in echo and aural haze. Things could have been much worse. It is still possible to enjoy the works presented, even with the blowsy sound.

Some listeners who are familiar with Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto may not be aware that he actually wrote four works for piano and orchestra. The story of pianist Nikolai Rubinstein’s denigration of that work, Hans von Bülow’s championing of it and Rubinstein’s eventual adoption of it, is very well known. Less known is that a few years later, Tchaikovsky regretted his disagreement with Rubinstein and wrote a second concerto for him to play. While the Second Piano Concerto may be better crafted than the First, the latter has the more memorable melodies, with the result that the Second has been neglected despite having some fine moments (including an Andante non troppo that becomes a triple concerto, with important solos for violin, cello and piano). The Third Piano Concerto originates from the last year of the composer’s life. The one movement that Tchaikovsky completed was taken from an abandoned Symphony in E flat. Whether he would have left it as a single-movement concert piece or expanded it into a full-length concerto is open to question; Tchaikovsky died before he the work was finished, and it was published posthumously. In between the Second and Third Concertos, he wrote the two-movement Concert Fantasy, which like the Second Concerto is well crafted but lacks distinctive musical themes.

The First Piano Concerto is given a strong performance, and things only improve from there. As in his traversal of the Rachmaninov concertos, Hough sets brisk but flexible tempos, which eliminates potential dead spots (especially in the Second Concerto), and allows the music more muscle and weight than it is normally given. (One thing that becomes increasingly apparent as these performances progress is how much the music can safely be driven, and how exciting it becomes when this is done without unduly rushing things the ‘Mahler principle’ of ‘when in doubt, take the music slower’ does not seem to apply here.) The Concert Fantasy receives what may be its best traversal to date, one that balances virtuosity and charm in equal parts. The Second Piano Concerto has not sounded this dynamic since Mikhail Pletnev recorded the piece; the speed of the final measures could literally be called insane, yet Hough and the Minnesotans keep up with one another without a problem. Nor is Hough averse to slowing down for more lyrical moments; he allows the solo cadenza that makes up much of the Concert Fantasy’s opening movement plenty of room to breathe and allow fantasy to have full reign. The same holds true for the quieter moments of the Second Piano Concerto. Imagination and digital dexterity both hold high place here.

Tchaikovsky

Only the single movement Tchaikovsky completed for the Third Piano Concerto is included, which is fine for three reasons. First, though he may have gone back and forth on this, there is a strong indication that Tchaikovsky may have intended it to be a single-movement work and had promised it as such to French pianist Louis Diemer. Second, the movements that Tchaikovsky’s friend Sergei Taneyev salvaged, which were eventually published separately as Andante and Finale for piano and orchestra, are not Tchaikovsky at his best. Third, had he decided to expand the concerto, he would have probably written something new with which to do so. Hough gives a fine run-through of this work also; although it is the weakest performance of the set, there is still much to recommend it.

The liner notes by musicologist Marina Frolova-Walker are excellent and the fill-ups to these discs are generous. On Disc One, after the Concert Fantasy, we are treated to Hough’s transcriptions of Solitude from the Op 76 set of songs (and better known to some for the orchestral arrangement Leopold Stokowski made of it), and the well known None but the Lonely Heart. On Disc Two, following the Third Piano Concerto are two alternate version of the Andante non troppo from the Second Piano Concerto. Even in the works initial rehearsals, there were complaints that this movement was overlong, and for many years, when the concerto was performed, it was played in a version with cuts made by pianist Alexander Siloti. The first alternate is Siloti’s truncated version. The second is Hough’s alternative, in which some of the solo violin and cello writing is redistributed to the piano.

This should be an unqualified recommendation. If it were a case of judging the performances by themselves, it would definitely be so. Unfortunately, there is also the sound to contend with. If you can live with it, this set would be a welcome addition to someone’s music library. It is hard to think that a better set might come along anytime soon.

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