It's hard to get excited about Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto. We've heard it a million times, and there's no shortage of excellent recordings – for example, Van Cliburn's, which was one of the best-selling classical recordings of all time. Still, every now and then we hear a performance that makes us fall in love with the music all over again. One would think that there was nothing left to say about this music that hadn't already been said, or that if there were, that it couldn't be said without distorting or misrepresenting the music. As it turns out, Volodos and Ozawa have taken a fresh look at the score. Nothing has been taken for granted, and the performers have depended on their own musical instincts – not on tradition – to make it work. This warhorse has been scrubbed clean and readied for a new campaign. Tempi are as flexible as breathing itself. This is one of the least metronomic recordings I know, and yet the concerto holds its shape because a basic pulse has been maintained, in spite of the accelerandi and rallentandi. Even phrasing has been re-examined; just the insertion of a tiny break or inhalation can change and even illuminate a passage we thought we knew and understood well. Not once does this sound mannered, however. This isn't difference for the sake of difference. Here are musicians who were not content with using other people's solutions.
This wouldn't make much of a difference if Volodos's technique was deficient, but he is a galvanizing player who seems able to do just about anything. From thunderous octaves to gossamer filigree and tender cantabile playing, he is virtuosity defined. What other pianist comes to mind? None other than Vladimir Horowitz. Ultimately, however, I think Volodos will prove himself to be the more insightful of the two. This is a live recording with a somewhat "present" audience, and you'll cheer right along with them at the end of the third movement.
The Horowitz comparison is even more apt when one hears the 22 minutes of Rachmaninoff that follow Tchaikovsky. This is an well-chosen selection of the composer's solo piano works; simplicity, fantasy, virtuosity, romanticism, and even outrageous humor are given their moment. And speaking of humor, Volodos's own transcription of the Italian Polka (whatever such a thing might be!) brings the disc to a wild close. These seven selections were recorded in the studio, with a little less brilliant engineering than in the Tchaikovsky, but the sound is still gratifyingly warm.
Think you know this music? Give Volodos a try anyway. He's a "wow" for sure.
Copyright © 2004, Raymond Tuttle