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Tchaikovsky
Concerto for Piano No. 1
In B flat minor, Op. 23

Mendelssohn
Concerto for Piano No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25

Lang Lang piano, Daniel Barenboim conducting
Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Review by Max Westler
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Tchaikovsky: Concerto for Piano No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23 and Mendelssohn: Concerto for Piano No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25

CD Stock Number: DG 00130336 

 

  My high-school music appreciation teacher hated Tchaikovsky in much the same way a lot of us would later wind up hating Lyndon Baines Johnson and Richard Nixon. Unfortunately for her, the few of us who actually liked classical music had already been corrupted by pieces like "Capriccio Italien." Why bother with the incredibly boring "Goldberg Variations" (her favorite piece of music) when one could be listening to the 1812 Overture in the brand new medium of stereo with bronze cannons from Douay, France booming from one speaker to the other? Of course, to her way of thinking, Tchaikovsky's immense popularity only proved what a terrible composer he truly was; his only talent was knowing how to satisfy the common listener's insatiable hunger for one-hundred-per-cent pure schmaltz.

As you might guess, the work she considered the most egregious example of the composer's puerile imagination was the First Piano Concerto, and I remember that once she played "Tonight We Love," bandleader Freddy King's swing-tempo version of the first movement's big tune (a number one hit in 1941), as if it was the conclusive piece of evidence in her open-and-shut case against the composer. Only later did I discover that she was hardly alone in her antipathy. Of all Tchaikovsky's major works, the First Concerto is probably the most consistently dissed by critics and musicians. George Szell was reported to have begun a rehearsal of the work by telling the orchestra (the New York Philharmonic, in fact) that since the concerto was a "piece of shit," he was just going to follow along wherever the pianist wanted to go.

In this context, it's worth noting that the first person to ever hear the concerto instantly and fiercely disliked it. This was Nicolai Gregorievich Rubinstein, the accomplished pianist, pedagogue, and close friend the composer hoped would soon be giving the premiere of the work. As he was not a pianist, Tchaikovsky had asked Rubinstein to point out "what might be ineffective, impracticable, and ungrateful" in the solo part. But in a scene that Tolstoy could have written, Rubinstein shocked his friend by declaring the entire concerto "worthless, clumsy, and vulgar," and much else besides. Tchaikovsky's response was swift and equally dramatic. "I shall not alter a single note," he replied. "I shall publish the work exactly as it stands." Which is, of course, exactly what he did.

Unfortunately, Rubinstein's two most serious charges--that the Concerto is "vulgar" in its content, and "clumsy" in its construction -- are the ones that have stuck. After all, why did Tchaikovsky open the work with one of his grandest, most unforgettable tunes, then choose not to develop or reprise it, even at the very end, where many a lesser composer surely would have thought to do so? Even sympathetic critics see this opening as a structural defect; for nothing that follows is half as compelling or transcendent as that arching melody, beginning with the crabbed (and yes, deliberately clumsy) theme that follows it and that turns out to be, much to the listener's surprise, if not dismay, the unpromising material Tchaikovsky actually does choose to develop in that first movement.

But maybe that is the point. In his major compositions, Tchaikovsky often liked to set dramatically contrasting themes clashing: think of "Romeo and Juliet," "Francesca Da Rimini," the first movement of the "Pathetique." But that's definitely not the case in the First Concerto where opposites--the coarse and the fine, the fierce and the tender, maybe heaven and earth--are all made to dance together. Though the great tune in D flat Major never returns, its key signature reappears in the form of the sweet-tempered and flowing second subject of the third movement where it alternates currents with a raucous Cossack dance. In the coda, the two themes are joined in a final reconciliation that brings the work to its ecstatic conclusion. I think the concerto is arguably more ingenuously structured than many of Tchaikovsky's other major works. In what other concerto does the composer introduce the solo instrument by having it play accompaniment?

Of course, the issue of vulgarity can only be addressed in the heat of an actual performance. In this respect, the concerto has been truly blessed by the pianists who have brought to the task at hand not only a phenomenal technique, but also the kind of passionate advocacy without which any piece of music, great or small, will surely sound lacking. On my short list of such performances you will find Horowitz/Toscaninni (the 1943 "war bond" concert, not the 1941 studio version), Agerich (with Kondrashin, not Dutoit), Solomon/Dobrowen, Curzon/Solti, Cliburn/Kondrashin, Gilels/Reiner, Pletnev/Fedoseyev, Wild/Fistoulari, and Richter (with Ancerl, definitely not Von Karajan). Surprisingly, given his low opinion of the work, George Szell collaborated in three memorable recordings: a warm and glowing account with Curzon in mono, an incisive, classical take on the music with Gary Graffman, and a once much sought-after bootleg with Vladimir Horowitz that several critics count as the greatest performance of them all. It says something about Szell's professionalism and dedication, if not his greatness, that he could give himself so wholeheartedly to the concerto in spite of such deep-seated reservations.

This newest version of the work marks my first encounter with Lang Lang, and I came to it with high expectations. Not since the advent of Evgeny Kissin has a young pianist so captured the imagination of the musical press. In fact, a recent Grammophone featured Lang Lang on a cover that announced, "Pianistic Dynamo Takes U.S. By Storm!" Unfortunately, in this instance at least, the pianist has as much trouble living up to his hype as the emperor had in showing off his new clothes. Even with 143 entries in the newest Schwann, I suspect this performance is sui generis: a Tchaikovsky First Concerto with no sense of drama or urgency. For reasons that remain obscure, pianist and conductor have decided to approach the work as if it were salon music. If you've been in the market for a Tchaikovsky First played in the cavalier manner of, say, a Chopin Impromptu, your long wait is finally over.

It's a novel idea to underplay the introduction, but novelty is just about the only thing to recommend it. If the introduction is not going to suggest the heroic scale of everything that follows or state the big theme boldly, memorably, what's the point? Here the opening chords have no thrust or majesty, absolutely no sense of occasion. in Barenboim's hands, the theme is soft-focused, flaccid; the much-maligned Freddy King did a better job of representing it. And when Lang Lang enters, it's with all the conviction of a first-year student practicing scales. So it goes. Barenboim thumps his way through the more animated sections, wallows in the more lyrical ones. Lang Lang crawls, scampers, abruptly pauses to remark some point of local color, then hurries off again. Eight minutes into the first movement, the performance suddenly catches fire, then just as mysteriously flickers out again, as if soloist and conductor had somehow lost interest.

In order for this concerto to work, the pianist must summon the requisite intensity to hold this potentially disparate music together, while at the same time resisting the temptation to exaggerate. But Barenboim and Lang Lang can neither sustain a basic pulse, nor phrase the music in a natural-sounding way; and the structure soon fractures into a series of more or less unrelated episodes. I suppose one could argue that this approach is meant to be "Romantic," improvisational; but to these ears, it all sounds calculated, mannered; at times, violently affected.

Even in the final movement, there is no roughhewn good humor, no excitement bursting at the seams. The first subject has no spring, the second no lilt. In the end, Lang Lang manages the terrifying octave run with aplomb, but then pianist and conductor take an expressive pause that turns the final apotheosis into so much treacly sludge; certainly, a fitting conclusion to a performance in which all the big moments are willfully converted into anticlimaxes.

You would expect Barenboim and Lang Lang to have better luck with the Mendelssohn Concerto, for here the pianist must present such a brilliant, beguiling surface that the listener never notices that there is not much going on beneath it. But again, conductor and pianist self-consciously fuss the details, and make heavy weather out of passages that require sparkle and finesse. The question soon becomes, once you have divested this music of its charm, what remains?

A lesser orchestra might well have been flummoxed by such interpretative mauling, but the great Chicago Symphony Orchestra maintains its poise throughout, giving Barenboim just what he asks for, and at times more (as in the second movement, where heart-rending solos lighten a tendency to sluggishness). Still, I am reminded of Leonard Bernstein's infamous late recordings of Tchaikovsky's Fourth and Sixth Symphonies with the New York Philharmonic, where you can actually hear the musicians resisting the grotesquely slow tempos the conductor is asking them for. Here too the Chicago Symphony sounds in no manner convinced. Selflessness is the essential discipline of an orchestral musician; so it cannot have been an especially pleasant task to have witnessed, let alone participated in this bonfire of the vanities.

Rather than a final paragraph on the sound (who cares about the sound when the performance is this disappointing?), I would rather end with an anecdote, perhaps apocryphal. Once Dimitri Mitropolous took a friend to sit in on a rehearsal of the NBC Symphony Orchestra. The conductor was, of course, Toscaninni, and he was rehearsing Ponchielli's "Waltz of the Hours." (Remember the hippopotami in tutu's from Fantasia? Well, "Waltz of the Hours" is the music they are dancing to.) Halfway through the rehearsal, the friend turned to Mitropolous and whispered, "I always thought this music was awful, but he makes it sound fantastic!" And Mitropolous whispered back in his thick, Greek accent, "Is no awful music. Is only awful performers."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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