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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54 (1841-45)
Introduction and Allegro appassionato in G major, Op.92 (1850)
Introduction and Allegro concertante in D minor, Op.134 (1853)
Peter Rösel (piano)
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Kurt Masur
Recorded 1980 (location unknown)


(same program): Perahia/Abbado – Sony Classics 64577 [57:20]

Kurt Masur is one of our most well known conductors of the central symphonic repertoire but Peter Rösel is a hidden treasure who spent most of his productive years behind ‘The Berlin Wall’. In recent years, Berlin Classics has issued many of his recordings. Although they have uniformly received excellent reviews, Rösel remains a pianist who is rarely mentioned in the same sentence as a Perahia or Goode. If memory serves me correctly, my first exposure to Rösel was an EMI disc of the Weber Piano Concertos (now on Brilliant Classics) played in excellent fashion. Every other Rösel disc since that time has received many hours of play on my home audio systems.

More often than not, recordings of Schumann’s famous A minor Piano Concerto are coupled with a major Schumann solo work or another famous concerto such as the Grieg Piano Concerto, also in the key of A minor. Rösel and Masur deviate from the norm in programming the two piano-with-orchestra works from Schumann’s later years. As it happens, I have a disc from Murray Perahia and Claudio Abbado with the same program, and I used this recording extensively in the review process.

Schumann’s Concerto has a piecemeal history. In 1841, he wrote a one-movement Fantasy that no publisher would touch. The advice he received was to add two movements to make the work into a concerto. Schumann evidently didn’t take immediately to the advice, because it took him four years finally to add the two movements. Further, it is ironic that the last thing he did with his Concerto was to add a transition between the 2nd and 3rd Movements, this transition being one of the most famous in all classical works.

The piecemeal history would tend to indicate that Schumann’s Concerto would not have a strong level of coherence. However, Schumann overcame that possibility by using, in different guises, the A minor primary theme of the 1st Movement throughout the work. Thus, the A minor Concerto is essentially monothematic and has raised some complaints from listeners that Schumann’s wealth of creativity in the Concerto is rather low and that the composition is too long. A different line of thought is that Schumann masterfully varied the A minor theme to the extent that most listeners would not be aware of its monothematic elements. Personally, I consider the 1st Movement too extended, but the other two movements possess perfect length.

Comparing the Perahia and Rösel recordings of the Piano Concerto brings into view a basic difference in presenting stereo sound. Perahia’s soundstage is the typically modern one of very small spacing between instruments that leads to a homogenized sound where distinctions among voices decrease. I won’t deny that it sounds attractive, but at the loss of detail. Particularly in the 3rd Movement, Perahia’s projection has trouble gaining distinction above the orchestra.

With Rösel’s recording, the stage is much wider. When the time strikes for Rosel to ascend, his soundstage is fully agreeable. Rösel takes full advantage, giving a performance that rivals the outstanding performance of Jorge Bolet on Decca conducted by Riccardo Chailly. His exuberance is boundless, and he weaves his way through the orchestral tapestry of the 3rd Movement with distinction and a great rhythmic pulse. He also does very well with the poignancy of the 1st Movement, although Perahia’s inflections are more incisive. Both conductors are excellent in keeping the music interesting and uplifting, although Abbado takes a more cultured path while Masur conveys a rustic atmosphere. Overall, I find the Rösel version compelling; Perahia is enjoyable.

Although Schumann’s later two works for piano and orchestra do not scale the heights of the A minor, they are worthy of a fine interpretation. Perahia’s versions are smooth and rather serene, because Abbado fails to create significant tension. Yes, his orchestra can be quite loud and make grand gestures, but the lack of tension means lack of urgency. Masur gives us hard-hitting performances recognizing that Schumann wasn’t a has-been in his later works and that his inner world retained elements of desperation. Abbado conveys a man who has lost ‘the edge’; by doing so, Florestan also becomes more benign.

The 3-minute time differential between the two discs is of little significance. To be honest, I only noticed a difference in tempo with the Intermezzo to the Piano Concerto, and Rösel was the quicker and more refreshing pianist.

In summary, I heartily recommend the Rösel disc for its idiomatic performances. The 3rd Movement of the Piano Concerto is one of the best on record, and the two later works are also very impressive. The sound quality is lacking richness, but I am well satisfied with the expansive and crisp soundstage. As for the Perahia recording, the sound integration and Abbado’s somewhat limp portrayal of Florestan in the later works are problematic features that give the disc a low priority. However, those who place highest attention on the beauty and grace of Schumann’s music will certainly have a more favorable opinion of the performances than I possess.

Don Satz


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