Thanks to its unforgettable opening melody, which invariably insinuates its way into the heart, Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto has earned a deservedly permanent place in the repertoire. Arcadi Volodos' rendition of the concerto is the third to arrive from a major label in the past few 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 and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and Christopher Seaman (Harmonia Mundi), the recording is available as an SACD-hybrid multi-channel disc.
Volodos and Ozawa achieve the fastest performance of the three digital versions under consideration. Theirs is also the most consistently involving. While some might attribute their success in part to the extra frisson of live performance, there is a unifying conception to Volodos' approach that leaves listeners focusing less on technique (dazzling though it may be) than on the myriad beauties and internal logic of the music itself.
Every thematic exposition and transition that Tchaikovsky creates sounds poetic in Volodos' hands. It's up to the pianist to make the music sing, and Volodos does, first with understated simplicity, then by creating a near magical chiming, shimmering sound that none of the other pianists achieves. Once through the Andantino's scampering mid-section, his return to the lyrical melody finds his playing even more tender than before.
In Volodos' hands, every measure of the concerto seems to lead inevitably to the next. Where 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; and Horowitz never slows down enough to smell the flowers.
The disc concludes with seven short solo works by Rachmaninoff, including Volodos' transcription of the Italian Polka. Recorded earlier this year in a Berlin studio, they nicely capture the piano's full dynamic range. Taken as a whole, the pieces provide a satisfying conclusion to this major addition to the Tchaikovsky discography.