On the eve of her 26th birthday, pianist Ayako Uehara had already achieved some pretty stunning "firsts," the most impressive of which is the fact that she was the first Japanese artist to win the Gold Medal at the 2002 International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow. EMI's Tchaikovsky -- Mussorgsky is the first recorded evidence of Uehara's playing to be made available in the West, a Toshiba-EMI disc devoted to Tchaikovsky's solo piano music having preceded it. Uehara has an extremely light touch, a faculty that the EMI annotator attributes to her small stature and light weight, but one other strength not elucidated in these notes is her speed, which is truly impressive. You would have to go back in history quite a way to find another pianist who plays the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 with as feathery, and as rapid, a touch as Uehara does here. Speaking of feathers, one belongs in the cap of conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos -- the orchestral compliment, rather heavily scored by Tchaikovsky, falls right behind Uehara's tiny sound and nuzzles it cozily. Nevertheless, it is not a Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 to rank with those of Sviatoslav Richter's Deutsche Grammophon recording or the popular RCA Victor one by Van Cliburn. It just isn't a deeply felt reading of this notoriously left-brained concerto; mainly it's a display of pianistic pyrotechnics that can impress a jury with ease, but cannot move a listener to love it based on experiencing the recording alone -- it's too cold.
Uehara's Pictures at an Exhibition is Mussorgsky for people with short attention spans; the gap between the opening "Promenade" and "Gnomus" is so short you couldn't slide a piece of paper in between; for the experienced listener, you will think you have slipped and fallen down the stairs. Uehara's "The Old Castle" does not have the quality of eerie mystery so much as it feels spelled out by the pianist in large capital letters; those unfamiliar with the piece will get it very quickly, but more experienced ears will become impatient at its lack of atmosphere and poetry. "Bydlo" is worth singling out as being the only music on the disc that has the quality of weight, but even this is a little stilted and too rigid in the delivery. While there are individual movements within this "Pictures" that seem to fare better than others -- for example, Uehara's reading of "Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks" is at least interesting -- it isn't going to cause a listener to discard recordings of this work that may already be in one's library. As the badly written liner notes explain, Pictures at an Exhibition "is close to Uehara's heart," and one gets the impression that the producers at Abbey Road did not give her the time she needed to refine this recording.
Technically, Uehara is very, very solid, but her playing still needs a chance to develop some emotional depth, something that comes from her heart, rather than her fingers. EMI has recorded this Tchaikovsky concerto very well, although the soloist is rather quiet in relation to the orchestra, probably a natural consequence of her live volume. The Mussorgsky sounds good, but is a little on the quiet side overall, and this does not seem to be Uehara's fault.