Arcadi Volodos has everything it takes to deliver a stunning performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto, and this could have been it, but unfortunately it's not, through no fault of Volodos. This CD makes me angry--not at Volodos, who acquits himself admirably, but at Sony. If a Grammy were awarded for worst-engineered classical CD of the year, this one would be a contender: it has the worst orchestral sound I have heard from a major classical label in years. And it's all the harder to understand because Volodos's superb Rachmaninoff Third was also a live performance (June 1999) recording with the Berlin Philharmonic in the Berlin Philharmonie, just like this one (June 2002), also on Sony, and it certainly isn't afflicted with the engineering problems of this CD. (Different engineering teams recorded the two concertos.) I wonder if there is something about Sony's hybrid CD/SACD process that caused the problems (the far-better-sounding Rachmaninoff Third is not a hybrid CD/SACD disc like this one). (Let me stipulate that I'm listening on a conventional two-channel stereo CD system, not SACD, although my system is a reference-quality one. Let me also add that I am an audiophile, and that those who are indifferent to the quality of recorded sound can discount much of this review.)
Whatever the reason, the orchestral sound here is conspicuously bad. The in-house amazon.com reviewer described it euphemistically: "The forward sound is aggressive but exciting." In fact it's a lot worse than that: "hot," harsh, thick, muddy, and congested, with poor clarity and resolution of detail, with little sense of space and separation across a stereo soundstage (it seems to be clotted centerstage), and when the orchestra gets loud, the sound gets nasty, with a hard, harsh, ugly glare. We sense we're in trouble from the very beginning, with a loud opening orchestral tutti that made me wince (although the piano sounds fine). The stringed instruments have that strung-with-steel-wires hardness and metallic edge. I'm surprised Sony would release a new CD as poorly engineered as this one is. I have no fault to find with Volodos, a pianist I admire; his playing is as fluent and expressive as one could wish. (I posted a rave review of his Rachmaninoff Third.) But for me this disc is done in by the lousy sound; I can't listen to it with pleasure, and there is just no excuse for a modern piano concerto recording to sound like this. If you care about the quality of recorded orchestral sound, I'm afraid this CD is one to avoid.
As with his Rachmaninoff Third, this CD is filled out with six short pieces by Rachmaninoff, and as with that CD, these pieces are pleasant fillers of no great weight which Volodos plays handsomely. (Also as with the Rachmaninoff Third, these pieces are studio recordings and sound fine.) The real treat, however, is the seventh short piece, Volodos's own "concert paraphrase" of Rachmaninoff's Polka italienne. This one is great fun, a rip-roaring Horowitz-style virtuoso transcription which runs the gamut from fleet-fingered delicate filigree to thunder. Volodos sounds like he's having a wonderful time playing it. He is a notable transcriber as well as player of transcriptions, and anyone who liked his spectacular debut Sony CD of transcriptions is sure to enjoy this track.
There are other, nonmusical, more minor annoyances. This is the first classical CD I've ever seen that has no timings anywhere for its various tracks (not in the booklet, not on the backside of the case). Was this just a careless oversight? The total playing time, which is provided, is 54:27, short measure by today's standards, despite the makeweights. The liner notes are of the gushing, self-serving, occasionally silly kind. (Here's a sample: "Volodos is a powerhouse--a veritable one-man orchestra himself. The sheer sonority he rings [sic] from the piano is so visceral that you can feel it as well as hear it in this recording. It resonates through the body like thunder." Hmmm.) Finally, someone at Sony had the brainchild of photographing Volodos standing in an empty, abandoned warehouse, with light coming in through the dirty, streaked, broken windows. These dirty, streaked, broken windows are then used as the recurring visual motif throughout the case and booklet. There are only two problems with this choice of artwork: first, it's unappealing and ugly; second, it has nothing to do with Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Volodos, or the piano. Pointless, tasteless, irrelevant.
To sum up, Volodos deserves better than he gets in this shoddy, half-baked production. Caveat emptor--and poor show, Sony!