MusicWeb International

This disc preserves in the Athene label’s “Outstanding Concert Performance Series” a live program presented by the Freiburg Philharmonic Orchestra on 13 and 14 January, 1997. The back cover finds the concerto soloist, pianist Andreas Boyde, earning a much bigger, bolder credit than either orchestra or conductor (Johannes Fritzsch). A listen to the album reveals why: Boyde’s pianism is very much worthy of preservation on disc, the playing of the Freiburg Philharmonic less so.

Boyde and Fritzsch opt for a totally uncut of edition Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 2, and the performance is a great pleasure. Boyde sometimes missteps in his handling of the concerto’s ferocious runs, but no more so than Jerome Lowenthal did in his recently re-issued studio recordings, and at any rate Boyde’s playing is consistently enjoyable: he executes the gigantic first movement cadenza with flair, plays the second subject with touching subtlety, and makes an effective, low-key partner in the slow movement, with its extensive solos for violin and cello.

The lack of cuts is surely an attraction here: the slow movement, restored to its original length, has been recorded to my knowledge only by Lowenthal and Stephen Hough, in his new Hyperion traversal of all three concertos. Konstantin Scherbakov’s excellent Naxos reading removes about thirty seconds of material for what has traditionally been considered a more concise ending; older interpreters like Emil Gilels excise half the movement, thus gutting one of Tchaikovsky’s most beautiful creations! Preferences for recordings of this concerto; Scherbakov’s account is fiery and explosive, with keyboard-rattling virtuosity, while Boyde is polished, laid-back, but never lazy. I have yet to hear the Hough account, but it sounds even faster and more furious than Scherbakov’s.

The Shostakovich Ninth Symphony finds Johannes Fritzsch and his orchestra on their own, and trouble sets in rapidly. Fritzsch’s one eccentricity is a fondness for slow tempos in the opening bars of individual movements; for two seconds, the opening of the Ninth – with steely, unpleasant violins – warns of a dull, interminable reading before an accelerando brings us up to pace. The same trick is used in the scherzo, though sadly not in finale, the one movement where it works well, as Vasily Petrenko’s recent recording from Liverpool proved.

The main problem with this reading, though, is the Freiburg Philharmonic. Intonation is dodgy, solos are botched in every movement, and the ensemble is not always playing in unison. The violins can’t keep together in the opening allegro (1:20), and the violin solo in that movement is cringe-worthy (4:24), the brass are out of sync almost permanently in the fourth movement, and the trumpeter lets out a hair-raising yowl at 1:10 in the scherzo. In the finale, the oboist’s solo begins promisingly but ends in screeches, and the violins misplay their way into more unintentional dissonances. Only the principal trombonist (assertive) and bassoonist (extremely cool under pressure) emerge with pride intact.

For live performances, the sound quality is not bad, although coughing pock-marks the Shostakovich slow movements; the sound certainly is clear enough to make the Freiburg Philharmonic’s ample intonation issues evident. A full minute of applause follows each work, and the back cover amusingly gives the copyright date as 2020. (It also, incredibly, misspells “Freiburg.”) I do like the program, with its interesting contrast between romantic splendor and neo-classical sarcasm, and were it better-executed this would be an excellent disc. But the Freiburg Philharmonic poses too great a challenge to the listener. Every time I really started to smile and feel drawn into the music, a solo trumpet or violin would produce such a jarring discord as to make me jump. A pity, really. I’m sure those involved in this release meant well, but some concerts deserve preservation for posterity, and some concerts do not. This one did not.

—Brian Reinhart