Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Fantasy in C major, Op.17 (1836-38) [36:24]
Arabesque in C major Op.18 (1838) [7:47]
Symphonic Studies, Op.13 (1836) [35:17]
Sergei Edelmann (piano)
rec. 24-26 February 2009, Northern Alpine Cultural Centre, Toyama
TRITON EXCL-00025 [79:28]

This substantial feast of Schumann has to whet the appetite, but enters a catalogue richly populated in great names from the piano world. Vladimir Ashkenazy has been a staple on Decca for many years with his survey of the entire piano works, and individual players such as Maurizio Pollini, Murray Perahia and Alfred Brendel all have their claims staked. I’ve compared with a couple of other Eastern Bloc pianists for the sake of narrowing down the field a little and getting us orientated somewhat, but make no claims to know what the definitive ‘best’ recording of these pieces might be.

Ukrainian-born, Sergei Edelmann arrived in the United States of America in 1979, soon making a name for himself in the concert and festival circuit, and more recently through recordings of Beethoven, Liszt, Schubert and Chopin on the Triton label. His piano sound is not quite as rich as that heard for instance with Abdel Rahmen El Bacha from the same label but from different locations, but is still good enough. Triton doesn’t go in for surround-sound SACD, the enhanced layer is a high quality stereo. In this case an increase in volume above the norm helps beef out the texture, but while the sound isn’t brittle or fatiguing the bass is lighter in comparison with the treble in terms of balance, which may be due to any number of factors. The trade-off is in terms of clarity, in which this recording is pretty unbeatable.

Edelmann’s Schumann is very fine indeed. He kicks off the programme with a very imposing and high-impact reading of the Fantasy in C major Op.17. His sense of the poetry in the music is different to that of Brendel in his earlier recording on Vanguard Classics and now on the Alto label (see review), heightening the contrast between the poetic thinner textured moments by stretching the tempi more, and driving forward with greater urgency as the dynamics rise. The nobility in the second movement is expressed well, and focus and sense of form and direction are rarely compromised by the technical demands of the writing. The final Lento sostenuto e sempre piano is given a tenderness which more than adequately expresses Schumann’s message of love and forlorn hope.

The Arabesque in C major Op.18 is more than just a filler, and Edelmann ponders thoughtfully on the work’s intimate little hesitations and repetitions to good effect. He might have pondered a little more on the tempo, which is a little on the slow and heavy side – coming in at 7:47 compared to Freddy Kempf on BIS-CD-960 at 6:07. Kempf is arguably a little too hasty sounding, but his traversal tends to even out Schumann’s creative hiatuses in the opening rather than highlighting them. Edelmann speeds up a little later on, and this is still a fine performance although one which doesn’t provide all the answers.

The Symphonic Etudes Op. 13 is one of Schumann’s most ambitious early projects, and Sergei Edelmann pulls no punches, reminding me a little of Russian pianist Dmitri Alexeev, whose recording appears in a budget EMI 2CD set with some very good Brahms recordings. Both of these protagonists are usually good at bringing out the lightness in the etudes, though Edelmann’s dynamic contrasts are harder hitting. Perhaps the most revealing of Russian recordings is that by Sviatoslav Richter, now available on Alto ALC1136. His playing ultimately strikes the best balance between the inner life of the theme as it ‘lives’ in each variation, as well as delivering an uncompromisingly breathtaking pianistic performance. Edelmann is good too, but the balance between harmonic, accompanying notes and the melodic lines which need to be able to sing out from within, above or below them, isn’t always quite as convincing. This is spectacular pianism, but the inspiration is more in the playing than it the music – an intangible kind of point to make, but when you put Edelmann right against Richter in an A/B comparison the ‘ah’ moment is instant.

In no way do I wish to dismiss Sergei Edelmann as an also-ran in this powerfully performed Schumann recital, but neither the sonics nor the musicianship make this disc stand out particularly from the masses of competition against which it has to be compared. If the attraction of having these works together on a single nicely recorded SACD hybrid disc rides above all other considerations then I suspect few will be disappointed by this release. For myself I will always have that nagging thought at the back of my mind that other, ultimately more satisfying truths are to be had.

Dominy Clements

Not to be dismissed, but only one in a crowded market.