March 2006

Anton Rubenstein - Piano Concerto No. 4 in D Minor; Xaver Scharwenka - Piano Concerto No. 1 in B Flat Minor
Marc-André Hamelin, piano; BBC Scottish Symphony; Michael Stern, conductor
Hyperion 67508
Format: Hybrid Multichannel SACD

by Rad Bennett

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

This is volume 38 in the Hyperion The Romantic Piano Concerto, and the producers have saved two of the best concertos for last. The 19th century was an era of virtuoso performer-composers. Like rock stars today, classical musicians wrote music that would show off their best attributes as performers. Much of this music has been understandably relegated to the dustbin now that the artists are no longer alive, but these two concertos are exceptions. They were widely performed during the composers’ lifetimes and on up into the middle of the 20th century. Each features sweeping melodies, lush harmonies, and daredevil passages that would tax most pianists to the max.

Marc-André Hamelin, who has made a specialty of playing obscure keyboard works, has no such problem, making the fiendish passages that exist in both of these showoff concertos sound like child’s play. He is the perfect soloist for this repertory. Michael Stern seems the ideal conductor, too; his accompaniments are alert and tightly focused and his orchestra plays well for him. The razor-sharp articulation from both soloist and orchestra is breathtaking. The beginning of the Scharwenka Concerto, which starts the disc, gushes out with such abandon and virtuosity that a listener will be hooked from the start.

The recorded sound is brash and forward, but this seems entirely appropriate to the music. The piano sound is a trifle brittle but suits the soloists' crisp articulation. The bass line is tightly focused and the overall presence on this recording is attention-getting. The rear channels add just enough reverb to give a proper sense of space, while the center channel is used to focus the piano’s location.