Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1; Francesca da Rimini

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Tchaikovsky
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 1; Francesca da Rimini
PERFORMER: Olga Kern (piano); Rochester PO/Christopher Seaman
CATALOGUE NO: HMU 907323
Sensitivity, often missing in performances of Tchaikovsky’s B flat minor Piano Concerto, is a notable quality here. Christopher Seaman’s conducting and the orchestral playing are a tonic after the brash approach of so many readings, and there’s a sense of a real partnership with their young soloist. But there is a lack of fiery passion, which is underlined by some slow tempi. Olga Kern won a gold medal at the 2001 Van Cliburn Competition. She seems to be searching for interesting, even secretive, qualities. Hence her very deliberate solo connecting passage before the chords announcing the Allegro con spirito of the first movement, and her excessive dwelling over its contrasting second theme. You might suspect that this special treatment is intended to compensate for the absence of brilliance and sheer physical excitement. Kern’s double octaves are nothing like the ebullient Lang Lang’s on his recent recording (DG).

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The middle movement is taken dangerously slowly, yet its slumberous feeling is hypnotic, and the scherzo section which interrupts it is deftly spun. The finale seems rather mild, though the slower sections are most enjoyably shaped by Kern and the orchestra together, with the exception of the big tune just before the end, which seems unaccountably laboured.

For brilliance, passion and well-judged tempi which are never ponderous, Byron Janis is hard to beat, though the 1960 recording is kinder to the piano than the orchestra.

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When it comes to the illicit craving and terminal despair of Francesca da Rimini, Seaman and his orchestra sound all too civilised, and the recording is constricted. Adrian Jack