Tchaikovsky: Piano Concertos No. 1, 2 & 3; Concert Fantasia in G major, Op. 56

Stephen Hough; Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä (Hyperion CDA67711/2)

29 March 2010 5 stars

Hough TchaikovskyTwenty years after its conception, Hyperion's widely-acclaimed Romantic Piano Concertoseries has reached its discographical half-century. The statistics make for very impressive reading. 131 works for piano and orchestra – 59 of which are heard on record for the very first time – by 63 composers, performed by a total of 20 pianists under 22 conductors with 14 different orchestras. Those who have followed the project over the years will also know that these discs tend to supply highly entertaining and worthwhile listening.

Whilst not every single piece is an unreserved success – it turns out that some had remained in oblivion for good reason – there are many works that excite and electrify, making the case for greater prominence in the concert repertoire. (Arensky (Vol. 4), Scharwenka and Sauer (Vol. 11) and Brüll (Vol. 20) are but a few composers whose concerti spring readily to mind as works with potential staying power.)

For this landmark 50th release, Hyperion has veered uncharacteristically on to the beaten track. Or have they? Tchaikovsky is arguably the most renowned composer to have graced this series, and his Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23 is certainly the most canonical work to have been recorded under its auspices. However, the Russian's later works for piano and orchestra – two more concerti, plus a Concert Fantasia – lay claim to the obscurity shared by many of the lesser-known composers in this series. Stephen Hough's survey of these works during the BBC Proms last summer perhaps went some way to redressing this imbalance, and it is Hough – winner of Gramophone awards with two previous Romantic Piano Concerto recordings (Vols. 11 and 27) – who heads up an all-star cast here, collaborating with the Finnish maestro Osmo Vänskä and his very fine Minnesota Orchestra.

Many regard Hough as Britain's preeminent concerto soloist, an assertion difficult to argue with upon hearing this hypnotically dazzling account of the first concerto. There is no sense of “playing it safe” under the glare of the microphones in a concert environment, as attested by the refreshingly brisk tempi which Hough adopts during the outer movements. The monumental opening Allegro thus exudes a thrillingly tumultuous sense of ebb and flow whilst nevertheless maintaining the breadth indicated by Tchaikovsky's maestoso instruction. Hough's juxtaposition of thunderous pianism and lilting sensitivity is matched at every juncture by Vänskä's wonderfully sympathetic rendition of the composer's vivid scoring, resplendent throughout with beautifully judged orchestral solos. In the hands of this dynamic partnership, the second-movement Andantino semplice becomes a soaring operatic aria for piano and orchestra, the finale a daring sprint to the line in which the contrasting second subject is allowed appearances of ever-greater scope and romanticism.

The Second Concerto in G major, Op. 56, is an overtly brilliant work which readily aligns itself with so many of the concerti in Hyperion's series. The concluding Allegro con fuoco, in particular,is vintage nineteenth-century virtuosity, with its delightfully spry main theme, the dance-like, burlesque E-minor first episode with its wonderfully lyrical horn solo, and the perpetually devilish passage work which Hough so effortlessly casts aside. However, an air of inventiveness is brought forward in the central Andante non troppo, a tender, lyrical proclamation in which solo violin and 'cello rise to adopt quasi-concertante roles alongside the pianist who, if anything, moves away from the limelight. Hough combines beautifully with his fellow virtuosi (cellist Anthony Ross possesses an especially commanding tone) to give the very palpable sense of a triple concerto. Two alternative editions of this movement – one by Russian pianist Alexander Siloti (1863-1945), the other by Hough – are also provided, offering 'solutions' to perceived problems of length and structural integrity which emerged shortly after the work's premiere. Whilst these strikingly different alternatives are convincingly conveyed and pique one's curiosity, neither quite manages to supplant Tchaikovsky's original, boldly under-pianistic statement.

Both of the other piano-and-orchestra works recorded here are decidedly experimental in nature. The attractive Concert Fantasia in G major, Op. 56 is a substantial work featuring two dazzling yet carefree movements. The Third Piano Concerto in E-flat major, Op. 75 is a single-movement conversion of music which was initially intended to open Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony. The result of this unusual genesis is, ironically, a fantasia-like work in which the soloist is almost a part of the orchestra, but for a lengthy cadenza which rounds off the development section. Op. 56, in particular, acts as another vehicle for the soloist's mesmerising virtuosity (hear the spellbinding combination of cantabile tone production torrential semiquavers, and crystalline precision in the first-movement cadenza), whilst the extensive, sweeping symphonic swathes in both movements allow Vänskä to continually bring the undeniable quality of his ensemble to the fore.

The live recorded sound – captured in Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis – brims with vivacity. It might not match the pristine textures of Hyperion's studio recordings, and the occasional orchestral solo is not as prominent as it could be. However, the presence of the venue and its patrons, the spacious acoustic, the clarity of the piano and the rigorous teamwork between Hough and Vänskä – sprinkled with the odd inexactitude – make for an utterly riveting, edge-of-your-seat listening experience that would otherwise be difficult to achieve. Vänskä and his Minnesotans form an ideal accompanimental partnership, resplendent with bustling woodwind and a warm, rich tone from both strings and brass. They deliver the composer's orchestrations – ranging from fleeting to full-bodied – with magnificent passion and verve.

Never one to short change his audience, Hough includes two of his own arrangements of Tchaikovsky songs – 'Solitude', Op. 73 No. 6 and 'None but the Lonely Heart', Op. 6 No. 6 – to round off yet another superlative Hyperion Romantic Piano Concerto release.

By William Norris