In music, last decade's warhorse is this decade's neglected novelty. And yet Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto has proved ever-popular throughout its existence as one of the premier virtuoso showcases of the keyboard literature. This year, no fewer than four new performances of it have been released, including one by Barry Douglas, the gold medal winner at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow - the same competition that made Van Cliburn a household name in 1958. Cliburn's recording of the concerto has been one of the largest classical sellers, and when it finally makes it way onto compact disc - as it must soon - it will find a new appreciative audience.
If you have the impression, from what I've said, that Cliburn set a standard in the piece that few have attained since, you are not off the mark. There are other performances that exploit different aspects of the work, but if I had to recommend one studio performance, it would be his. Barry Douglas with London Symphony
Of the new releases, the most newsworthy is Mr. Douglas's, with Leonard Slatkin conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (RCA Redseal digital CD, 5708-2-RC). At 36 minutes, it is not a generous release, especially since CDs can hold up to 74 minutes of music. But it is a superb piece of engineering. Producer Jay David Saks can be proud of this one technically - spacious, natural, with good balance between piano and orchestra, and clean, unfussy stereo imaging.
Douglas's way with the work is never less than honest; he has the muscle and the poetry for the work and is up to all the bravura passagework, which he executes unostentatiously. Mr. Slatkin partners him ably, and with equal taste, but I suspect Douglas would have fared better with a conductor who challenged him to more fiery things, rather than agreeing with him so consistently. How sad that RCA did not also include something like Beethoven's Second Concerto (which I heard Douglas play at the Van Cliburn Competition) to show off the other side of Douglas's particular gifts. Medal-winner or not, he is a pianist worth watching. Postnikova with Vienna Symphony
If you want to have an attractive performance of Tchaikovsky's Third Piano Concerto paired with a sturdy, authentically Russian rendering of the First, you might like the performance of Victoria Postnikova with Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducting the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (London digital CD, 410 112-2). In both concertos Miss Postnikova is technically strong, seasoned in the authentic Tchaikovsky performance style (the only one, in fact, who plays with stylistic accuracy). Her husband, Mr. Rozhdestvensky, gives her taut, rousing, but not boisterous accompaniments, and in the Third Concerto, they rise to particularly eloquent heights. Pogorelich with London Symphony
Another Tchaikovsky-only release features Ivo Pogorelich with Claudio Abbado, again with the London Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon digital CD, 415 122-2). It gets my vote as the worst concerto recording of the past decade. Mr. Pogorelich skims over the keys, fussing with phrases, doing anything he feels like in the name of spontaneity and insightfulness. It all comes out as arbitrary, willful, and unexpectedly poor playing from a pianist who is reputed to be one of the leading pyrotechnicians of the day. Mr. Abbado seems withdrawn to the point of invisibility. Argerich with Royal Philharmonic
Pogorelich was catapulted to fame when Brazilian virtuoso Martha Argerich stormed off the Chopin Competition jury in '80, when the young Pole was eliminated before the finals. Argerich's first (analog) recording of the Tchaikovsky has been just transferred to CD (DG 415 062-2). It is a lightweight but volatile performance, deftly conducted by Charles Dutoit at the head of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. But it is the ``filler'' that makes this release a must - Argerich's astonishingly propulsive reading of Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto. Abbado, conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, joins her in a partnership that exploits all the raw passion and electricity of the score. Schiff with Chicago Symphony
The filler of the new Andras Schiff recording of the Tchaikovsky with Sir Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (London digital CD, 417 294-2) is also the reason to buy this release - Dohnanyi's charming, underrated ``Variations on a Nursery Song,'' Op. 25. It is a witty and gracious account of a work that has inexplicably slipped out of fashion. Mr. Schiff is as comfortable with this piece as he is ill-at-ease with the Tchaikovsky. Barnstorming bravura is not his forte, and though Mr. Solti does his very best to make Schiff's softer way meaningful, it does not, finally, amount to valid Tchaikovsky. Parker with Royal Philharmnic
Another pairing of the Tchaikovsky and the Prokofiev Third, with John Kimura Parker at the keyboard, features Andr'e Previn conducting the Royal Philharmonic (Telarc digital CD, 80124). Mr. Parker is at his remarkable best in the second movement variations of the Prokofiev - giving a particularly sensitive, thoughtful, and lucid account of that music.
His technique is just strong enough for both concertos, but the tone lacks the weight and burnished color one wants in either work. He is not aided by the sound, which is rather distant and lacking in central focus. But Mr. Previn and the Royal Philharmonic are ever impressive partners in a debut disc that is not without its strong points.