TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23. Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32
Olga Kern, pianist; Rochester Philharmonic Orch/Christopher Seaman, cond.
HARMONIA MUNDI MHU 907323 (F) (DDD) TT: 60:56

TCHAIKOVSKY: Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23. MENDELSSOHN: Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25.
Lang Lang, pianist; Chicago Symphony Orch/Daniel Barenboim, cond.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON B00000666-02 (F) (DDD) TT: 59:12

Russian-born Olga Kern has the distinction of being the first woman in thirty years to win the Gold Medal at the Eleventh Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in June 2001. Cristina Ortiz won the prize more than three decades ago in this competition which usually takes place every four years. Since that time Kern has enjoyed considerable success in appearances with orchestras, concerts and television. She makes an impressive statement with this performance of Tchaikovsky's familiar concerto. With imagination and total technical prowess she brings majesty to this chestnut. You won't find the dynamic virtuoso outbursts of Horowitz in his incendiary 1943 Carnegie Hall performance with Toscanini conducting. Currently ArkivMusic lists 147 recordings of this concerto and any new one must be very special indeed to challenge the best of what exists. Kern's performance surely is of interest but the Rochester Philharmonic, while surely an able orchestra, doesn't have the rich sound and virtuosity to complement the soloist—and their performance of Francesca da Rimini adds little to the appeal of this CD, especially when collectors have available interpretations by Munch, Markevitch and Stokowski.

Olga Kern's recording surely is of more lasting value than the new version by Lang Lang with Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony. The Tchaikovsky long has been a favorite of Lang Lang who, according to CD notes, was two years old when he heard it for the first time on a radio broadcast in his home in northeastern China. Lang began studying the concerto when 9 and played it for the first time when he was 13 while a student at the Central Music Conservatory. Four years later, when he was 17, he stepped in at the last minute for an indisposed André Watts playing the first movement with the Chicago Symphony, the beginning of his meteoric (and surprising, to me) position in the pianistic world. DGG signed him to an exclusive contract and this is his first recording for the label, coupling the first concertos of Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn. The pianist has a decided plus in the Chicago Symphony, although Barenboim's conducting is somewhat ponderous and overbearing, with engineering that creates a broad, open soundstage. This is one of the longest (38:25), if not the longest, recordings ever made of this concerto. Lang seems determined to reinvent every note with precious understatement in the more gentle passages and a "Look, I'm going to play this slower attitude." Of course the virtuoso elements are covered brilliantly, but I found this to be an annoying performance as perverse in its own way as was Igor Pogorelich's now deleted DG recording with Abbado conducting. Mendelssohn's concerto, which also has been in Lang's repertory for many years, fares better; there is plenty of facile note-spinning, but there are many other recordings that bring more meaning to the music, notably those by Perahia, Serkin, Hough and Thibaudet.

One wonders why Sony has yet to release Arcadi Volodos' recording of the Tchaikovsky made several years ago with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Seiji Ozawa.

R.E.B. (November 2003)