Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Quintet in E flat Op. 44 [30:21]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Piano Quintet No. 2 in A Op. 81 [40:24]
Jonathan Biss (piano)
Elias String Quartet (Sara Bitlloch, Donald Grant (violins), Martin Saving (viola),
Marie Bitlloch (cello))
rec. Wyastone Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouthshire, 27-30 April 2012
ONYX 4092 [70:53]
It would be hard to think of two more life-affirming, gripping or simply thoroughly
enjoyable chamber works than these two Piano Quintets. The combination of piano
and string quartet is one notoriously difficult to get right but both composers
managed in these works to find a way that worked for their particular musical
styles, even if it does require some effort and imagination from the players
to match their various demands in that respect.
Clearly the players on this disc have put in that effort, and throughout it
is obvious that every bar and every phrase has been carefully considered. The
opening of the Dvořàk, for instance, has an irresistible lilt to
the rhythm in the piano part and a subtle phrasing of the initial cello melody.
Once all the strings enter, however, the slight hesitations or adjustments to
tempo, the liberal use of portamento and the occasionally overdone
phrasing sounds to my ears more mannered or applied than spontaneous. This impression
is confirmed when similar effects are adopted in the repeat of the first part
of that movement rather than taking advantage of the repetition to vary the
presentation of the musical material. I must however give them due credit for
taking that essential repeat. So it goes on, and I found myself alternately
loving the collective imagination clearly at work throughout and feeling that
the very interventionist approach is simply unnecessary here.
Many earlier versions have shown that being more straightforward can and does
work - for instance I have a particular regard for the recording of the Dvořàk
by the Nash Ensemble on Virgin Classics which demonstrates this very clearly
but there are many more that make the same point.
Having said that, there is so much pleasure to be gained from this disc that
it is not possible to dismiss it out of hand. Indeed I could understand that
some, maybe many, listeners would actually prefer these fresh-sounding and exceptionally
clearly recorded accounts of both works. The Schumann is perhaps the more successful
of the two and is the one to which I am most likely to return. It is good to
hear such thoroughly prepared and thoughtful performances even if in the end
I feel that a less is more approach would greatly improve them.
Good to hear such thoroughly prepared and thoughtful performances.