Gerstein, Gaf­fi­gan find the true heart of Tchaikovsky’s Pi­ano Con­certo No. 1

In a piece that can seem like a high­oc­tane ex­er­cise in who can play faster and louder, they turn in a per­for­mance that is re­fresh­ingly lyri­cal and un­rushed.

The Washington Post Sunday - - MUSIC - BY PA­TRICK RUCKER style@wash­post.com Rucker is a free­lance writer.

In Bos­ton, 140 years ago this Oc­to­ber, Hans von Bülow played the world pre­miere of Tchaikovsky’s Pi­ano Con­certo No. 1, a piece that within decades be­came the most pop­u­lar con­certo for pi­ano ever writ­ten. Van Cliburn’s record­ing in 1958 was the first clas­si­cal al­bum to sell more than 1 mil­lion copies (it even­tu­ally topped out at more than 3 mil­lion.)

It has long been known that the con­certo ex­isted in three suc­ces­sive ver­sions, and it is the last of these that we know so well to­day. But re­cently, scholars have come to the con­clu­sion that this fa­mil­iar ver­sion in­cludes a num­ber of changes made by ed­i­tors af­ter Tchaikovsky’s death and that the au­then­tic score, con­tain­ing the com­poser’s true in­ten­tions, is the sec­ond ver­sion of 1879. This is the ver­sion that the Rus­sian Amer­i­can pi­anist Kirill Gerstein and Amer­i­can con­duc­tor James Gaf­fi­gan have recorded with the Ger­man Sym­phony Or­ches­tra Ber­lin.

The dif­fer­ences are al­most im­me­di­ately au­di­ble. For one thing, the fa­mil­iar sten­to­rian pi­ano chords that ac­com­pany the open­ing soar­ing melody in the vi­o­lins are not so loud in the sec­ond ver­sion and are played as arpeg­gios, or rolled chords. The sec­ond move­ment has a mid­dle sec­tion usu­ally played “prestis­simo,” as fast as pos­si­ble, when in fact Tchaikovsky wanted a less fre­netic “al­le­gro vi­vace.” The stan­dard ver­sion of the last move­ment omits a cou­ple of pages of the score that are hap­pily re­stored here.

In a piece that can seem like a high-oc­tane ex­er­cise in who can play faster and louder, Gerstein and Gaf­fi­gan turn in a per­for­mance that is re­fresh­ingly lyri­cal and un­rushed. Gerstein has a won­der­fully nat­u­ral, mu­si­cal sound at the pi­ano. His phrases are beau­ti­fully wrought, tex­tures are a model of clar­ity and noth­ing ever sounds forced. And be­cause the soloist is not al­ways play­ing as loudly as pos­si­ble, Gaf­fi­gan and the Ber­lin ensem­ble are able to pro­vide a con­toured col­lab­o­ra­tion that is short on rou­tine and overblown rhetoric and long on rhyth­mi­cal pre­ci­sion and vivid Rus­sian color.

The Sec­ond Con­certo of Sergei Prokofiev is no less re­mark­able. In place of rhetor­i­cal fist pound­ing in the vast open­ing An­dantino, Gerstein al­lows Prokofiev’s long, tor­tu­ous lines to un­fold in volup­tuous strands, cre­at­ing the sense of a vast, seam­less ta­pes­try. All four move­ments ex­hibit a strik­ing una­nim­ity of in­tent shared by soloist, con­duc­tor and ensem­ble, with ev­ery­thing geared to­ward vivid con­trast. No sooner does the pi­ano spin a trag­i­cally tinged nar­ra­tive of loss than the or­ches­tra sneers in mock­ing, sar­cas­tic de­ri­sion. This is a vis­cer­ally charged read­ing of a fiendishly dif­fi­cult score, both orig­i­nal in con­cept and com­pellingly elo­quent.

Kirill Gerstein, pi­ano. Deutsches Symphonie Orch­ester Ber­lin, James Gaf­fi­gan, con­duc­tor. Myrios Clas­sics MYR 016. TCHAIKOVSKY: PI­ANO CON­CERTO NO. 1, OP. 23; PROKOFIEV: PI­ANO CON­CERTO NO. 2, OP. 16

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