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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 54* [33:50]
Piano Quintet in E flat, op. 44** [30:09]
Alicia de Larrocha (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Colin Davis*, Tokyo String Quartet**
Recorded July 5th 1991, EMI Abbey Road Studio 1, London*, 13th-14th December 1991, Manhattan Center, New York City**
BMG-RCA RED SEAL 8287665830 2 [64:19]


It is an almost invariable rule that performances of the first movement of Schumannís Piano Concerto go at two different tempi, one for the loud bits and another, rather slower, for the soft parts. Without claiming to have heard all the many versions that have been made, I can remember only one that adhered to something like a single tempo throughout. This was by the American pianist Malcolm Frager and the Swiss conductor Marc Andreae on a long-forgotten BASF LP. Now we have another which aims to avoid rhapsodical excesses. Moreover, while Frager and Andreae, taking a relatively swift tempo and apparently insisting on it regardless of the results, sounded merely hum-drum, de Larrocha and Colin Davis, at a broader pace, still find plenty of time to mould the music caringly.

De Larrocha favours a brighter, more luminous, sound than the deeper one we are used to in this work from, say, Richter; Davis, too, aims for clarity with no muddying of the lower textures. Both have an infectious sense of rhythm which avoids their slow tempi in the forte passages becoming laboured, while Davis has learnt over the years to extract from an entire orchestra that subtlety of nuance we more often associate with a single instrumentalist, with the result that the two are very much eye-to-eye in the gentler, poetic moments.

I personally have always been uncomfortable with the swift, almost dancing way the Intermezzo is often played, so de Larrochaís and Davisís expansive version was much to my taste, and again the conductor draws some beautiful phrasing from the cellos. The finale goes at a fairly comfortable pace, but once again there is the artistsí lively rhythmic sense to prevent it getting bogged down.

In the last resort this performance doesnít seem to intend to scale the heights; it gives us Schumann enjoying domestic bliss rather than the lone seer. Iím not sure that certain famous performances, Richterís for a start, donít make a more important statement, but I very much recommend anybody who has one of the more excitable interpretations to take this for comparison and, if the idea of a version where Eusebius wins the day over Florestan appeals to you, this might find this your favourite recording of all. It certainly represents one kind of ideal.

In the Quintet we find a quite different sort of situation. In the concerto, de Larrocha was working with a master conductor who is also a master collaborator. Whether or not Davis would, of his own initiative, have interpreted the concerto in this way, he sees to it that pianist and orchestra are seemingly of one accord. The Tokyo String Quartet are shown in the booklet photograph to be a group of Bright Young Things; they intend to give a brilliant, upfront interpretation and neither hell nor high water nor Alicia de Larrocha are going to stop them. The result is a return to a fast-slow rather than single-tempo manner; not so much fast when itís loud and slow when itís soft as fast when theyíre all together and slow when the piano is on its own. I found this particularly unsettling in the first movement where de Larrocchaís solo moments, beautifully played in themselves, sound as if they were dubbed in from a completely different performance. The other movements offer less scope for this sort of thing but the pianist nevertheless interposes a few slowings-down in the finale particularly. More than a loss of tempo, one notes a loss of tension when she is on her own, and one can sense the Bright Young Things, their bows at the ready, raring to pitch in and get things swinging again.

Piano quintets sometimes sound like piano concertos manqué, and string quartets will tell you that pianists used to playing solo tend to play as if they are precisely that. This performance is an interesting demonstration of how far the strings can impose themselves if they are so-minded. Whether this makes for a satisfactory version of the piece is another matter, but perhaps Iíve got it all wrong and other listeners will find a convincing interpretative agenda behind the apparent divergences. But if you are convinced by this, you are likely to find the concerto strait-laced; though recorded within months of each other, these performances are so different that they are hardly likely to appeal to the same audience. If you decide to investigate you can be assured of a very fine-sounding recording.

Christopher Howell


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