MUSSORGSKY Pictures TCHAIKOVSKY The Seasons (Barry Douglas)
‘Tchaikovsky Plus One’ is the first of a new series in which Barry Douglas pairs some of Tchaikovsky’s principal works for solo piano with those of his compatriots. It was, of course, in Russia where Douglas made his name by winning the 1986 Tchaikovsky Competition. But even before that, as he explains, he ‘felt a deep affinity with Russian culture’. And it shows.
I don’t know how long he has had these works in his repertoire but they sound like old friends, well played-in. From the opening bars of the Schumannesque ‘By the hearth’ (January from The Seasons), Douglas draws you in with his self-effacing, intimate approach and beguiling tone. Anyone who has heard his ‘Celtic Reflections’ and ‘Celtic Airs’ albums (also Chandos) will know how eloquent he can be when presented with a simple, uncluttered melody line. Listen to ‘Barcarolle’ (June) and ‘Autumn Song’ (October) and you’ll see what I mean. The more extrovert numbers (‘Carnaval’/February, ‘Troïka’/November) are no less successful.
There have been more viscerally thrilling Pictures than this from Horowitz and Richter down, but few with such musical and textual integrity. I listened to it with great pleasure. Nothing to scare the horses, nothing exaggerated, no tinkering with the text, each section deftly characterised and using the full tonal and dynamic range of the piano. Douglas uses the original score, so you hear minor differences from the more familiar Rimsky-Korsakov edition such as ‘Bydło’ beginning ff (not with a distant pp), no repeats in ‘Goldenberg and Schmuÿle’ and the original ending of two octave B flats. Is he quite feroce enough in ‘Baba-Yaga’? Does he release too much tension in ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’? Not enough to spoil a distinguished and beautifully recorded account of this great score.
Set beside Barry Douglas, I’m afraid Yuan Sheng’s account of The Seasons is like comparing a pleasant spring walk in the Yorkshire Dales with a freezing midwinter trudge through the streets of Sheng’s native Beijing. Despite the fulsome biography in the booklet, I fail to hear much beyond a decent technique and a limited imagination. Five unrelated Tchaikovsky solos beckoned, among them the popular Humoresque but here without its requisite impish twinkle. The final piece is the Dumka, made famous by Vladimir Horowitz in his 1942 recording. If Sheng has heard it, he must have persuaded himself that his way of playing the piece is more interesting than Horowitz’s. But it isn’t. Though Yuan Sheng’s Bach has been widely acclaimed, Tchaikovsky, I feel, is not quite his thing.