Chopin: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Sa Chen, piano; Gulbenkian Orchestra Lisbon conducted by Lawrence Foster. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD plus bonus DVD).
Tchaikovsky: The Seasons; Sonata in C sharp minor, op. 80. Ilya Rachkovsky, piano. Naxos. $8.99.
Not all piano music storms the heights; and even when the music is great, not all performances bring out all its nuances. Obvious observations, perhaps, but they are worth keeping in mind in considering these very fine but ultimately not compelling recent releases of 19th-century piano works.
The Chopin concertos are warhorses, and remain tremendously popular despite their formal shortcomings: the orchestra exists merely to introduce and showcase the piano; indeed, Chopin composed the concertos only because he felt that he had to in order to get his piano music played. This is why, after finishing both concertos in 1830, when he was 20 years old, he never wrote another. Chinese pianist Sa Chen, who is 28, gets the flavor of the concertos right and certainly handles them with youthful enthusiasm in their lengthy first movements and with a sort of wistfulness in their second ones – nothing profound in those slow movements, but plenty of tinges of romantic (and Romantic) yearning. The more martial sections of the first movements show Sa Chen at her best, keeping the piano forthrightly in the forefront of the music – abetted by very sensitive conducting by Lawrence Foster, who seems quite content to have the fine playing of the Gulbenkian Orchestra Lisbon take a back seat to the soloist. The two finales, though, are a touch lacking in both warmth and humor; that of Concerto No. 1(the second of the two composed, although not by much) seems particularly stilted. Sa Chen certainly knows how to get the notes right, and the bonus DVD that accompanies the SACD of the concertos shows her thoroughly involved in the recording of the slow movement of Concerto No. 1. But the DVD also hints at what is missing here, containing a 20-minute interview in which Sa Chen really has nothing much to say to set herself apart from other young, technically skilled pianists. She does not seem to have thought very much about the music, perhaps because playing it seems to come so naturally to her. But thoughtfulness, at least as much as technique, is what separates an excellent performance of these concertos from a fairly routine one. The SACD sound is excellent – PentaTone consistently does a superb job sonically – but the recording simply is not a particularly memorable one from a musical standpoint.
Nor is Ilya Rachkovsky’s very well-played CD of Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons and his early (but posthumously published) Sonata in C sharp minor a disc to which many listeners are likely to turn again and again. The Seasons is pleasant but minor Tchaikovsky, written on commission for amateurs to perform. Its 12 movements, one for each month, contain many lovely moments (and some challenges for the amateur), but The Seasons is not a work of much substance and not one that gains depth through repeated hearings. Individual movements are enjoyable enough – the quiet “By the Fireside” for January and the hectic “The Hunt” for September, for example – and Rachkovsky handles the whole suite well; but this is simply not very substantial music. As for the sonata, it wants to be substantial music, but much of it (especially the outer movements) sounds derivative and does not lie particularly well on the piano. Written in 1865, when Tchaikovsky was 25, it is a work more interesting for its glimpses of the future than for anything inherent in itself. The most interesting look ahead is the Scherzo, which Tchaikovsky reused a year later as the third movement of his Symphony No. 1, “Winter Dreams” – although he wisely wrote a new Trio, the one in the sonata having little to recommend it. This sonata is a work that lovers of Tchaikovsky will surely want to hear – once in a while, anyway – but not one with significant inherent musical attractions.