Among recent releases, Arcadi Volodos’ piano most tenderly guides the composer’s melodies
The concerto’s first classic theme, sung by the orchestra, then punctuated by thunderous piano chords, elucidates a melody undergoing several permutations as it migrates from piano and then back to the orchestra, each time with greater effect.
Equally compelling as the opening are the two Ukrainian folk melodies that Tchaikovsky incorporated into the score: a most tender middle movement Andantino, whose lyrical opening and closing frame a jaunty mid-section and a thrilling, fiery final Allegro.
Arcadi Volodos’ rendition of the concerto, supported by Seiji Ozawa and the Berliner Philharmoniker, is the third to arrive from a major label in the past six months. As with the other two, the first featuring Lang Lang backed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Daniel Barenboim (Universal Classics), the other showcasing 2001’s Eleventh Van Cliburn International Piano Competition winner Olga Kern supported by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and Christopher Seaman (Harmonia Mundi), this recording is available as an SACD-hybrid multi-channel disc. Though hybrid SACDs sound nearly identical to standard CDs, these discs deliver a far superior fidelity in either two-channel or multi-channel surround sound when played on special SACD players, now increasingly available at affordable costs.
Although Volodos barely approaches the breakneck speed with which Vladimir Horowitz and his father-in-law Arturo Toscanini whipped the NBC Symphony Orchestra through the work in 1941 (recently re-released on the two-disc “Vladimir Horowitz: Legendary RCA Recordings” by RCA), he and Ozawa achieve the fastest performance of the three CDs recently released. While some might attribute this success to the extra frisson afforded by a live performance, there is a unifying conception to Volodos’ approach that leaves listeners focusing less on technique—dazzling though it may be—and more on on the myriad elegance and internal logic of the music itself.
Since sound is frequently manipulated in the recording studio, it would be foolish to try to state with certainty which pianist produces the most heaven-shaking opening chords. But thunder, of which Volodos supplies plenty in the finale, is hardly this Tchaikovsky’s raison d’être; the work is also filled with a tender lyricism that requires equilibrium that is attentive to the concerto’s timing and singing line.
Volodos shines when rendering poetic Tchaikovsky’s thematic expositions and transitions. Take, for example, the opening of the middle movement Andantino. An orchestra can play as slowly and tenderly as it wishes—Barenboim does an exemplary job of underscoring orchestral nuance—but it is up to the pianist to make the music soar. And this Volodos does, first with understated simplicity, then by creating a chiming, near shimmering sound. Once through the Andantino’s scampering mid-section, Volodos returns to the lyrical melody even more tenderly than before.
In Volodos’ hands, every measure of the concerto seems to lead inevitably to the next. In comparison with the other Tchaikovsky recordings, Lang Lang’s vision occasionally seems to cloud in slower passages, as though he’s too concerned with details to see farther down the path. Kern occasionally sounds prosaic while Horowitz never slows down long enough to smell the flowers, so to speak. Volodos, on the other hand, constantly propels the music forward with an understanding that draws the listener deeper into Tchaikovsky’s melodic universe.
Given that the recording is not one of Sony’s technically finest—with an inexcusable failure to include timings—Volodos’ achievement seems all the greater. Universal brings Lang Lang’s instrument more forward, enabling us to hear every nuance (or lack thereof) that the pianist brings to the work. Universal’s multi-miking also throws into bold relief Barenboim’s gorgeously detailed, near-Wagneresque approach to the score. Ozawa’s conducting seems paradoxically less exceptional yet more in synch with his pianist, supporting the artist rather than out-nuancing him.
The disc concludes with seven short solo works by Rachmaninoff, including the composer’s transcription of the “Polka italienne.” Recorded earlier this year in a Berlin studio, these pieces nicely capture the piano’s full dynamic range. A comparison of the lovely “Prélude in G major, Op. 32 No. 5” shows Horowitz at his famed 1987 Moscow recital even more magical, his playing distinguished by barely audible, hushed tones and extraordinary shadings. The “Moment Musical in E-flat minor, Op. 16 No. 2” finds Rachmaninoff himself in an even more dynamic mode.
Taken as a whole, these Volodos pieces provide a satisfying conclusion to this major addition to the Tchaikovsky discography.