Tchaikovsky: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2/Denis Matsuev, piano/Mariinsky Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev

March 7 2014

I was anticipating a huge, monstrously bombastic performance of the First Concerto under the fingers of the powerful and technically phenomenal Matsuev, and he did not disappoint in that regard. 

Few pianists would seem to be more adept at the sometimes quite un-pianistic writing that the 34-year-old non-pianist Tchaikovsky would create, pouring his heart into the work only to have it shot down by the original dedicatee, the oft-times thuggish Nicolai Rubinstein, who called it “worthless and unplayable”. 

Rubinstein thereby with these words consigned himself to the hell for those who make boneheaded and completely stupid remarks about pieces that subsequently become the staples of the western musical canon. Even Tchaikovsky however could not have foreseen the immense popularity of this work, based in no little part on the brilliant and yet egregiously undeveloped opening theme of the first movement which never appears again. Matsuev of course doesn’t care about any of the history, only what he can do with the piece, and he is a whiz here. But for some reason Gergiev—I assume—takes the final bars of movement one at a less that optimal pace, meaning quite slow, and the dramatic effect is totally neutered, rendering the performance second tier, despite the fine other two movements. I cannot, despite the excellent surround sound and general thunderous performance, recommend this over Argerich/ Dutoit, Argerich/ Kondrashin or Cliburn/ Kondrashin.

The Second Concerto is a very generous coupling on this recording, and might make the difference for many despite the flaws of the First. Tchaikovsky preferred the Second Concerto and always thought it superior in every way to his original effort. Six years after his first attempts, at age forty and with a number of significant accomplishments under his belt, he produced this longer and more substantial work, also dedicated to Rubinstein (who died before he could play it) and also was the subject of two revisions by the composer and one by an associate. Today the composer’s first wishes are given paramount attention, and it is a pianist with great perspicacity and deep understanding of the idiom needed to navigate the complex chamber-like, balletic, and virtuosic aspects of the music.

Though the work is often ignored, in many places it is making a comeback, and it is fully worthy of much more attention than some pretty unsubstantial romantic concertos are currently enjoying. Matsuev makes a great case for the concerto, perhaps the best since Gary Graffman, and this performance redeems the emotional let-down of the first movement of Concerto No. 1 and makes the album wholly worthwhile. The pianist certainly has the goods in this music.

—Steven Ritter

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