JWR Articles: CD - The Music for Piano and Orchestra (Featured performers: Jerome Lowenthal, Joyce Yang) - October 31, 2014

The Music for Piano and Orchestra

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Two schools of thought

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky:
The Music for Piano and Orchestra

Bridge 9301 A/B
127 min. Three and one-half stars

Tchaikovsky: The Tempest, Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 23
Bridge 9410
59 min. Four stars

Mozart lovers of all stripes are well advised to add both of these discs to their collections and take a leisurely afternoon to compare and contrast the same music (K. 414) done up as the usual concerto (Scott Yoo conducts the Odense Symphony Orchestra with soloist Marianna Shirinyan) and string quartet (the Calder Quartet along with pianist Anne-Marie McDermott) versions. There is much to admire in both with the edge going to the one-voice-per-part performance.

Despite the timings being in a virtual dead heat (26:25/26:33, respectively), the results differ spatially. Curiously, both opening “Allegros” suffer from a lack of breath in the exposition (soon remedied once the smaller forces settle down) and the collective wish that the tempo would be more “happy” than “fast.”

Shirinyan, demonstrating admirable technique, and Yoo end up delivering more nervous excitement than artistic drive; McDermott and the Calder Quartet, inevitably more intimate, establish a wider dynamic range and palette of colours that delight the ear once the table is set.

The “Andante” is provided a wonderfully dreamy introduction with the smaller forces where the orchestral soundscape is decidedly cavernous. Both pianists bring distinct, yet entirely convincing points of view and departure to the cadenzas; Shirinyan displaying a fine understanding of the underlying structure while McDermott’s organic growth, superb use of silence and tantalizing “hesitato” (not so much the earlier excursions into affectation) and welcome ring combine to create many unforgettable moments of art.

Both finales feature convincing tempi and dramatic episodes. Here the soloists prove adept at measuring the weight of the many dotted notes compared with their less precise string counterparts. Simply outstanding is McDermott’s ability to render the staccati arid-dry—too many others cannot abide anything but bel canto tone—ensuring a variety of sounds and textures that will have audiences on their feet, demanding more of this marvellous less.

Perhaps Mozart’s most sublime concerto, K. 488 completes the program for Shirinyan’s disc. There is a greater feeling of control from all concerned; the quibbles centre around tempi and harmonic/dramatic goals.

The “Allegro” opens with much promise but both pianist and conductor take the approach of backing off from phrases that end mid-bar, telegraphing the contrast to come rather than letting Mozart’s balance and sense of surprise do their work. The “Adagio” begins with a tempo that, if kept, could reveal many, many subtleties in the inner voices and interaction between soloist and orchestra. Alas, the pace is gradually increased, scuttling the possibility of intimacy of the highest order. The courage to lift the accompanying eighths (piano) underneath the lyrical melodies would be welcome in a further performance. The finale has too many speeds, initially verging on the reckless and a preponderance of separate cf legato in the busiest phrases resulting in a similarity of attacks that belies Mozart’s genius for contrast.

Also on the Calder-McDermott disc are K. 415 and 449. The former features a marvellously regal opening and a development that truly benefits from the chamber forces, while the cadenza is a heady mix of power, technique and coquettish lyricism. Curiously, the “Andante” feels too slow, not aided by the frequent affectations; an ounce more “semplice” might go a long way. The “Rondeau” is sheer happiness and joy deftly juxtaposed with artful introspection and a brief bed of pizzicati.

The last concerto adds double bassist David Grossman into the mix. Thundering at times, the extra depth, nonetheless, provides literal weight to the moments of understated menace in the “Andantino,” which seem one take away from perfect string “speech.” The “Allegro ma no troppo” beautifully lives up to its meaning, allowing the quintet of equals free rein—yet tight ensemble—to render Mozart’s genius with aplomb. Few orchestral versions can come near to that remarkable achievement. JWR

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Featured performers - Jerome Lowenthal, Joyce Yang
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23 - Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Concert Fantasy in G Major, Op. 56
Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Major, Op. 44
Piano Concerto No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 75
The Tempest, Symphonic Fantasy, Op. 18
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