: Tchaikovsky Piano Concerti 1 and 3 – Scherbakov – NAXOS
Total Time: 69’12”
Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No.1
Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No.3, Op.75
Tchaikovsky-Taneyev Andante and Finale, Op.79
Konstantin Scherbakov, Piano
Russian Philharmonic Orchestra
by Chang Tou Liang
There had better be good reasons for a record label to issue the 299th recording of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. It’s all the more surprising that budget-label Naxos has taken on that gauntlet, as this is its third recording of an overworked and over-flogged warhorse. It is also a duplication of an identical coupling (of Tchaik One and Three with Andante et Finale) on Naxos made some years ago by Bernd Glemser and that Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (Katowice) led by Antoni Wit, a recording which I have not heard but which has had good notices.
Naxos faith in Siberian-born pianist Konstantin Scherbakov (who has also re-recorded other repertoire for Naxos mostly Rachmaninov) has largely been repaid in this idiomatic recording. While it does not present new insights to the already familiar music, it offers sound musicianship and a very dependable reading. That is because Scherbakov is a musician first, virtuoso second, and prima donna last.
I have heard Scherbakov live in Singapore (in both concerto and solo recital) on no less than four occasions, and was impressed by the intelligence and integrity he brings to the music. Even if the piano is substandard (as the ones at the National University of Singapore usually are) or the orchestral accompaniment indifferent, the music shines through under his hands all the same.
How often has one heard a young upstart attempt to stamp his or her mark on Tchaikovsky’s First by distorting the music with extremes in dynamics? Thankfully, Scherbakov does none of these; the music is too good to deserve defacement and graffiti in the name of artistic expression. Having said this, this performance strikes me as one that neither offends nor sends one into raptures. If it were a piano competition, it could very well win first prize. If it were a concert, the audience would go home satisfied but all may be forgotten when the year is over. For a recording, one would expect something more, an intangible factor that distinguishes great recordings like those of Gilels, Argerich or Cliburn, just to name a few from merely good ones.
While Scherbakov is responsive and dutiful, the contribution of the orchestra is serviceable and forgettable. Fast forward to just past 9:30 of the first movement (the orchestral tutti leading to the pianos entry of cascading octaves), the French horns statement of the urgent second motif is all but inaudible. Just to name a moment that could have escaped in concert, but not on disc.
Perhaps some space could be reserved for Tchaikovsky’s neglected Third Piano Concerto. The composer completed just one movement (Allegro brillante), which was originally part of an abandoned symphony that predated his Pathetique. For many pianists, this is the Third Concerto, as much as the Adagio alone is Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. This single movement has been recorded by Gilels, Pletnev, Igor Zhukov, Peter Donohoe, Barry Douglas and several other pianists. Enter Tchaikovsky’s pupil Sergei Taneyev, who decided to orchestrate from sketches two other movements from the abandoned symphony, and turn these into a slow movement (Andante) and finale (Allegro maestoso) for piano and orchestra. Tagged onto the Allegro brillante movement, one gets a full-length three-movement concerto!
Should one get over-excited by this prospect, the musical material is way less inspired than that of the celebrated First Concerto. In many ways, the Third Concerto resembles the maligned Second Concerto in that the first movement is bloated and over-long, finds redemption in a lovely slow movement (in the tradition of Tchaikovskys sublime slow movements) but is undone by a banal, tub-thumping finale. For all its deficiencies, Scherbakov puts forth as good a case as possible. If the Tchaikovsky-Taneyev Third Concerto on a single disc is a priority, this would do quite finely. As part of a complete survey of everything Tchaikovsky wrote for piano with orchestra (all three concertos, Andante et Finale and the Concert Fantasia), the budget-priced set by the late Werner Haas (on Philips Duo or Trio) remains a benchmark.
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