Piano Concerto No. 4 in D minor, Op. 70 Elaine Kwon, piano; Slovak Sinfonietta/Kerry Stratton. Artist's Choice Recordings ACR 1950. TT: 34:50. Downloads: CDbaby.com (speed not given).
Anton Rubinstein retains a place in music history as Tchaikovsky's teacher at the Moscow Conservatory, but his music remains mostly obscure, though this D minor concerto gets the occasional airing. Elaine Kwon and Kerry Stratton are committed advocates, and their performance is most persuasive in the central Andante movement. The orchestral introduction, meant to be mysterious, comes off as flatfooted, but bright-toned piano arpeggios open up the sound. Kwon's voicing of the first theme is firm and her phrasing expressive. The Chopinesque episode that follows, at 2:23, is attractive; the woodwind phrases against the first theme's reprise sound peculiar rather than piquant, but the supporting strings add a welcome fullness at 4:17. The faster, more agitated minore at 5:29 offers a nice contrast to the prevailing lyricism. The clarinet takes up the theme's final statement, at 8:04, wistfully. The movement's overall effect is pleasing.
The outer movements, despite allowing Kwon greater opportunities to display the overtly virtuoso aspect of her playing, are less convincing, and it's not really the artists' fault. Certainly everyone involved does their utmost to bring off the opening Moderato assai. The strings play the opening phrases with impulse and intensity; Kwon's first entry, a cadenza, runs across the length of the keyboard with fully weighted tone; and her crisp, detached articulations in the first theme-group are harder than she makes them sound. While the Slovak orchestra, like many Slavic ensembles, favors a heavier sound than do Western groups, they contribute plenty of sprightly, perky playing. In the expansively lyrical Rachmaninovian passage at 8:24, Kwon's chiaroscuro is expertly gauged. But, despite a healthy bit of tutti rhetoric, the movement finished without having "spoken"—to me, at least—in a satisfying way.
The finale, unfortunately, displays one of Rubinstein's more annoying compositional tics: his propensity for working short rhythmic motifs to death by repetition. Just as the introduction's hammering string octaves threaten to become tiresome, Kwon launches the first theme in a playful minor, with pingy, limpid articulations. But the emptyheaded piano-and-orchestra dialogue beginning at 2:57 stops the show, the wrong way. Kwon is dazzling in some of the flourishes, and Stratton and the orchestra support her with enthusiasm, but it's not enough. The beautiful episode at 7:12, with its orchestral phrases in thirds, is too little, too late.
Those who have more patience than I with this composer's vicissitudes may rest assured that this is an ardent, strongly-profiled interpretation. A touch of congestion in the midrange undoubtedly reflects the massed strings' occasionally swarthy tone in the midrange—they're lovely in higher, more transparent writing—than any flaw in the warm, full engineering as such.
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.