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.
John Sheppard
Good to hear such thoroughly prepared and thoughtful performances.