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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Quintet in E flat major, op. 44 (1842) [28:01]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Piano Quintet in F minor, op. 34 (1864) [40:32]
Leif Ove Andsnes (piano); Artemis Quartet
rec. Teldex Studio, Berlin, 18-22 December 2006
VIRGIN CLASSICS 3951432 [68:33]
Experience Classicsonline

Schumann’s piano concerto was the work that finally turned me from rock music to classical. Inspired and with the aid of the Penguin Guide, I investigated some of his other works, not surprisingly finding the piano quintet very much to my liking; and so it has remained my favourite piece of chamber music.
The early Naxos recording of the Schumann and Brahms by Jénö Jandó and the Kodály Quartet (8.550406) has been my companion over these years, and it has always satisfied me, especially in the Schumann. All the while, I have been aware that there had to be a better recording of each work, but none had thrust itself forward as a candidate. It might surprise you that for such a well-known work, it is not recorded all that often. On ArkivMusic, it has 48 listings, but that is far fewer than at least ten other Schumann works, including the four symphonies. On MusicWeb International, there have only been two reviews in the last year or so: one an Alban Berg Quartet re-release (see review) and the other, a Czech radio recording (see review).
This was until I saw the Andsnes/Artemis CD whilst browsing my local record shop - if you can count one that is 100 miles away as local! I had recently watched a documentary on the young Norwegian pianist, and felt this might be the disc I had been seeking. I was right.
The first listen was through the rather unflattering speakers of a hotel DVD player, but that didn’t matter. The pounding piano part of the first movement leapt into the room and demanded my attention immediately. An absolutely compelling performance ensued – I was entranced, enraptured and enthralled. Good as my old Naxos recording was – and in researching this review, I was pleased to see how highly my colleague Michael Cookson regards it (in a review of the Brahms on MDG) – this performance is quite extraordinary. The finale is an electrifying mix of relentless drive and subtle delicate humour, and builds to a breathless climax. Sitting at my desk listening, I still feel like standing up and applauding as I undoubtedly do if I was ever lucky enough to hear it performed live by this group.
The Brahms had always seemed a poor relation of the Schumann on the basis of the two recordings I owned – the Naxos and a Philips Duo with Werner Haas and members of the Berlin Philharmonic Octet – but that was dispelled by a performance here which was perhaps even better than the Schumann. Passion, drama and tenderness are the hallmarks of this truly glorious rendition. Listen to the Scherzo – playing doesn’t get any better than this.
The sound is very good, though perhaps the piano dominates a little too much – mind you, given the two composers, this is not really inappropriate – and it would appear that one of the players had a cold during the recording. The ensemble playing is truly exceptional, a true partnership of equals, rather than battle between pianist and strings as can happen sometimes with a concert pianist playing chamber music. I am, however, at a loss to account for the light fittings that the players are holding in the cover photograph.
In September, this recording was awarded the Gramophone magazine Chamber Music Performance of the year. I am not even remotely surprised – when the editorial team here at MusicWeb International constructed our list of favourite recordings (Our Classic Classics) this went straight into mine, as it will into my Recordings of The Year. No matter how much you like the recordings you already have of these two works, you have to have this one.
David J Barker


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