Two little known Romantic Russian piano concertos thrill in expansive SACD sound.
TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Concerto No. 2; KHACHATURIAN: Piano Concerto – Xiayin Wang, p. – Royal Scottish Nat. Orch./Peter Oundjian – Chandos multichannel SACD CHSA 5167, 75:54 ****:
The pairing of these two Russian Romantic warhorses brings together two works that deserve to be performed more often. Both have explosive melodic invention supported by rich orchestration and virtuosic opportunities for piano and orchestra.
Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978) was Eastern Armenian by birth, but lived in Russia (Moscow) most of his life. Initially interested in biology, at age 19 entered the Moscow Conservatory as a cellist, studying with Nicolai Miaskovsky. His music was tonal and fell easily on the ears. That helped him elude the Communist conservative forces that nearly destroyed Shostakovich. He grew up surrounded by folk music. “Popular festivities, rites, joyous and sad events in the life of people always accompanied by music,” he once wrote. His music is colorful, ripe with folk melodies and rhythmically dramatic. In the 1951 Record Guide a critic wrote, “A clever musician who knows every trick of the trade…Khachaturian’s talent seems fundamentally commonplace; but the athletic rhythms and luxurious texture of his orchestral music have brash appeal.”
The Piano Concerto of 1936 was the first work that gained him recognition, and became popular in its day. A dramatic drum thump startles the ears and is followed by “pounding chordal dance rhythms.” A quieter, lyrical episode transitions to fiercely virtuosic pianistic triple octaves that leads to a propulsive conclusion. The slow movement is dominated by a lovely folk melody played by the piano and a Flexatone, a “curious penetrating whine …created by rapid oscillation of two little wooden knobs.” It adds an oriental flavor to the turbulent Russian drama that follows. The virtuosic finale recapitulates the material in the first movement on an extravagant scale. Xiayin Wang plays this Romantic warhorse in a vibrantly dramatic manner.
Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) was on a vacation in 1879, visiting his sister in Kamenka in the Ukraine. He was anxious about his destined-to-fail marriage, an unsuccessful attempt to distract the world from his homosexuality. Filled with emptiness and dissatisfaction with his life, he started to compose the Second Piano Concerto and finished it by May of 1880. The famous Russian pianist Nicolai Rubinstein was to be the soloist, despite his criticism of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. But Rubinstein died in early 1881, and the premiere was given in New York City on November 12, 1881. Alexander Siloti, a former pupil, made cuts that Tchaikovsky resisted. But after the composer died in 1893, Siloti restored the cuts in the second edition. The original version (played here) clocks in at over 40 minutes.
The march-like theme that starts the lengthy first movement announces that this is a work on a grand scale. A lyrical second theme, announced by the flute and horns, becomes a magnificent orchestral statement. Dramatic and lyrical thematic developments ensue, with an extensive cadenza, passionately performed by Xiayan Wang. The movement ends with a stirring and exciting flourish. The unique second movement is in effect a piano trio with minimal orchestral accompaniment. A violin and cello sing one of the most beautiful melodies Tchaikovsky wrote. Violinist Maya Iwabuchi and cellist Aleksei Kiseliov make the most of the hushed intimacy. The finale is the expected adrenalin filled romp, complete with grandiose thrills.
Wang’s pianism glitters with panache and vigor. The wide-ranging SACD sound is a bit over-reverberant, but the piano is well integrated into the orchestral texture. This is a great pairing of instantly lovable piano concertos.