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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Quintet in E flat major, Op. 44 (1842) *
Piano Quartet in E flat major, Op. 47 (1842)
Antonio De Secondi, 2nd Violin *
Michelangelo Piano Quartet
Recorded in Florence, Italy, August – September 2000
CHANDOS/CHACONNE CHAN 0698 [57:52]


Comparison Period Instrument Recording:

Burnett/Fitzwilliam Quartet/Amon Ra

Before discussing Schumann’s chamber music and the Chandos performances, I should address the claim by Chandos that these are the premiere recordings on period instruments. The fact is that both programmed works have been recorded already on period instruments, and I have a particularly warm feeling for the performances on Amon Ra by fortepianist Richard Burnett and the Fitzwilliam Quartet.

Personally, I find it hard to fathom how Chandos could be unaware of alternative recordings of the Quintet and Quartet on period instruments. Just a few short minutes on the Internet told me that other period instrument discs are available.

On to Schumann’s chamber music that does not get nearly the attention given his lieder, piano music and symphonies. Yet, there are approximately thirty recordings of the Piano Quintet in the catalogues, while the Piano Quartet has about ten entries. The greater popularity of the Piano Quintet is due to its more exuberant nature along with more immediately attractive melodic content. I do not claim that the chamber music possesses the same level of inspiration as in Schumann’s most popular genres, but they are excellent works worthy of repeated listening.

At this point I might as well address the issue of sound quality. The Chandos sound is overly rich and reverberant, allowing for little detail or clarity. In contrast, the Amon Ra soundstage is rather dry and clinical with abundant detail presented by the artists. In addition to the Amon Ra sound being more realistic, it is far ahead of the Chandos sound in offering secondary voice details and impact. As an example, the secondary voices in the Piano Quintet’s 1st Movement provide most of the tension, and the sound from Chandos only gives us a glazed hint of this tension. Of course, some listeners will prefer the richer and more integrated Chandos sound, but I find it inappropriate for the occasion.

What we have here are chamber works ideal for Schumann’s parlor, and there is no better way to be transported to his home for an evening of music than through excellent period instrument performances in realistic sound. Chandos comes down the pike with ‘symphonic and slick’ sound that blows all thoughts of Schumann making music on the homefront out of the water. Why would Chandos do this? Well, rich sound has been the rage for decades now, and Chandos has certainly been a leader of this trend. The company usually offers fine detail as well, but it is absent in this Schumann disc.

It may well be that the Michelangelo Piano Quartet’s performances aren’t far below the quality from Burnett and company, but the Chandos soundstage does not allow for a fair comparison. Another advantage for the Amon Ra disc is that it includes the Schumann Sonata for Violin and Piano in A minor which extends the disc to about 75 minutes of music compared to under 60 minutes for the Chandos release.

By the way, the Fitzwilliam String Quartet and Burnett play splendidly. They provide plenty of spunk and vitality, give secondary voices ample projection, apply incisive accenting at the right moments, and convey Schumann’s poetry and angst in healthy measure. I am especially smitten with the group’s performance of the exciting final Movement of the Piano Quintet. They play it with great exuberance and inject a slice of menace into the musical mix to enhance the diversity of themes. Further, the surprising fugal section is given an exceptional display of counterpoint by the ensemble. One last feature is that Burnett plays a Viennese fortepiano by Graf which would be very similar to the one owned by Clara Schumann, adding another layer of historical and aesthetic reality to the production.

In conclusion, the Chandos recording could be thought of as a disc for those who do not really appreciate period instrument performances. However, I doubt that modern instrument enthusiasts would be willing to trade-in their Beaux Arts sets on Philips for alternatives that offer so little detail and clarity. Overall, I consider the Chandos/Schumann disc a failure, and this is the first time that I have not appreciated a Chandos recording.

My best recommendation is to acquire the Amon Ra disc and listen to idiomatic performances of two exceptional Schumann chamber works. Burnett and company will take you into Schumann’s parlor as long as you have imagination to spare.

Don Satz

 



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