TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor, Op. 23; The Tempest (Symphonic Fantasy, Op. 18) – Joyce Yang, piano/ Odense Sym. Orch./ Alexander Lazarev – Bridge 9410, 58:21 [Distr. by Albany] (3/3/14) ****:

Korean-born pianist Joyce Yang (b. 1986) seems to be on a musical tear, having assaulted the classical CD environs with a series of firebrand offerings. Yang joins conductor Lazarev in concert (December 2011) for a suave and often exhilarating traversal of Tchaikovsky’s long-familiar 1875 First Piano Concerto.  Eschewing the obviously heaven-storming impetus of the first movement, both principals focus on the work’s lyric beauty, sustained by references to folk tunes and the use of repeated long and short phrases – in the manner of Schumann’s A Minor Concerto – to establish a formal symmetry to the whole. This does not deny the obvious passion that Yang thrusts forward, especially when she has horns and low winds to support her. Her runs and arpeggios in pearly play extend a grand line, always singing, then surrounded by strings and flute. The big tuttis from Lazarev, too, invest the music with a balletic series of gestures, intrinsic to Tchaikovsky’s  histrionic sense of drama. The first, brief cadenza singles out Yang’s fierce and magisterial tone. The dialogues of piano and oboe, piano and clarinet become increasingly captivating, and the transition to the large cadenza – with its glistening runs and periods alla musette – proves as compelling as the muscular coda. 

The Andantino semplice releases gentle, nocturnal colors, the keyboard, flute, viola, and oboe in delicious synchronization. With the prestissimo middle section Yang and ensemble playfully modulate the French chanson, “It faut s’amuser, danser et rire.”  The tone color of Yang’s cascades and the salient sforzato from the orchestra resonate gleefully, courtesy of producer David Starobin and engineer Adam Abeshouse. That Tchaikovsky here paid homage to Belgian chanteuse Desiree Artot seems common knowledge.  The spirit Cossack dance of the Allegro con fuoco has the requisite thrust and lightning flourishes, tempered by a lovely melody in D-flat Major that balances the very opening tune of movement one. Whirling figures in the winds accompany Yang’s increasing momentum, a driven pulse that escalates while appearing to slow down, suddenly erupting into the Cossack rondo. The B-flat Major peroration sings and thunders impressively. While perhaps not on the monumental par of the Richter and Horowitz velocities and massive bulk, this collaboration has consistently born ardent and poetic fruit, and Tchaikovsky has been well served.

Conductor Lazarev proffers (rec. November 2013) a luxurious rendition of Tchaikovsky’s 1873 response to Shakespeare’s late play The Tempest, the composer’s having been instigated to the task by the critic Vladimir Stasov.   After considerable debate whether to depict a fierce storm in music – much in the manner of Liszt’s handling of the furor in his Dante Symphony –  Tchaikovsky acceded to Stasov’s suggestions. The music proceeds in eight designated sections that place Prospero’s magic island in the midst of a turbulent sea, then the music embraces the love of Miranda and Ferdinand, the messenger Ariel, the monster Caliban, and Prospero himself as surrounded by his potent books. The music concludes with the pictorial invocation of the sea.

Tchaikovsky’s application of the sonata-form to a symphonic fantasia in the Lisztian manner provides more credibility to his claim to have merged Russian national feeling and the dominant Western musical tradition. The yearning love-theme becomes as pivotal here as in the composer’s Romeo and Juliet, celebrating with a potent climax this “brave new world” that hath such wondrous dramatic possibilities. The brass fanfares and chorale that occupy the last pages seem to owe he debts to Liszt, particularly to his Tasso—Lament and Triumph. With the music’s ghostly dissipation at the coda, we realize that Prospero has renounced his magic, and all of us remain merely the stuff dreams are made on.

—Gary Lemco