November 2005

Tchaikovsky - Piano Concertos 1-3; Mussorgsky - Pictures at an Exhibition; Balakirev - Islamey
Gary Graffman, piano; Cleveland Orchestra; George Szell, conductor; Philadelphia Orchestra; Eugene Ormandy, conductor.
Sony Classical S2K 94737
Format: CD
Originally released: 1963-1970
Reissue released: 2005

by Rad Bennett

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****

There are particular recordings of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto that I treasure, among them the ones by Emil Gilels and Fritz Reiner, and Vladimir Ashkenazy and Anatole Fistoulari. But this one, with Gary Graffman and George Szell, is as good as those, and this set includes just as vibrant performances of the Russian composer’s second and third efforts at writing keyboard concertos. Pianist Graffman was a powerhouse performer for CBS Masterworks in the 1960s. His charismatic readings of Russian works blended energy, flair, and lyricism. The two orchestras heard here were at the peak of their powers, too. Szell is especially alert in accompanying the First Concerto, and the reliably lush sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra is shown to great advantage in the Second and Third Concertos.

Graffman encores with a warm and solid reading of Pictures at an Exhibition and flies through the difficult showpiece Islamey without mishap. Though his performances are of virtuoso caliber, one always senses that the music comes first. All the glitter is a reflection of the gold underneath.

This two-CD set is being offered by Sony Classical in the third wave of its Classic Library series. The discs are attractively packaged, with a sizable booklet that contains historic photos and entertaining and informative notes by our own Richard Freed. I am not sure of the exact process, but Sony claims the recordings for the newest releases in this series, though often analog, as in the case of the Tchaikovsky, have been transferred into the DSD realm. The result is astonishing. This refined yet robust recording sounds more like vinyl or SACD than a regular CD, putting the JVC XRCDs I've heard to shame.

I’d check out other recordings in this series as well as this one. Among them, you will find Murray Perahia’s poetic playing of Schubert’s Impromptus, and Leonard Bernstein’s lyrical romp through Ives’ Second Symphony. These are recordings that ought to be in every "classic library."