Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 54 (1845) [31:38]
Piano Trio No. 2 in F major, op. 80 (1847) [26:09]
Alexander Melnikov (fortepiano); Isabelle Faust (violin); Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello)
Freiburg Baroque Orchestra/Pablo-Heras Casado
DVD: Live performance of the concerto
rec. 2014, Teldex Studio (CD), Philharmonie Hall, Berlin (DVD)
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC902198 [57:47 + DVD: 35:40]

This is the fourth release by these three soloists where a concerto and piano trio have been coupled. The first two were the Dvořák violin and cello (review) concertos with the Third and Fourth trios, respectively. The Piano Concerto missed out, which might be more a comment on the First and Second trios. After quite an interval, they have moved onto Schumann, starting with the Violin Concerto and the First Trio released earlier this year (review). Each recording has been enthusiastically welcomed. The Cello Concerto and Third Trio will be released next year.

The Schumann piano concerto was the work that transformed my musical listening from the popular music of the 1970s and 1980s to classical. It remains very much at the forefront of my favourite works. I have collected ten or so recordings of it (Argerich/Harnoncourt, Janis/Reiner, Cliburn/Reiner, Hewitt/Lintu, Pires/Gardiner among them), but remain loyal to my first purchase, the classic Murray Perahia version with Sir Colin Davis and the Bavarian Radio Symphony.

When this new one appeared on the review lists, I requested it for three reasons: the concerto, the performers and the accompanying trio — for my continuing survey of piano trios. I didn’t take the time to check the details, and was rather disappointed to find that Alexander Melnikov was playing a fortepiano, an instrument that has not endeared itself to me. Secondly, the small, baroque-sized orchestra, as good as the Freiburger are, was a concern. I thought I might have to ask Len Mullenger to re-offer it for review.

However, my misgivings were totally unfounded. The 1837 Erard instrument sounds absolutely magnificent, quite clearly the most rich-sounding one of its type I have heard. It is far better than the 1828 Graff used in the trio’s Beethoven recording (review). Indeed, the difference between the Erard and a current grand piano is not that great. Similarly, the forty-strong orchestra makes plenty of sound when necessary: the famous opening bars lose nothing to the big bands.

Schumann’s orchestration is frequently described as overly thick, and there have been a number of attempts to solve this in the symphonies with smaller, historically-informed orchestras (Herreweghe – review; Dausgaard – review). If there has been a similar approach to the concerto before this, I am not aware of it.

Melnikov is a little faster than most in the opening Allegro affettuoso, though Argerich is quicker and Perahia only five seconds slower. There are numerous moments of great beauty throughout, though occasionally there is a lack of tenderness, which is perhaps due to the nature of the instrument. The changed timbre of the orchestra, especially the winds and brass, was fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable. The Intermezzo is simply a delight: no more need be said.

However, the same cannot be said of the Allegro vivace which closes the work. Melnikov is very slow at more than 12 minutes, almost two minutes more than Perahia who is not known for especially fast tempos – and it is not successful. At times it is more Allegro amabile, and I wished for more power and passion. I had similar reservations about last year’s Pires/Gardiner (review), and she is more than a minute faster than Melnikov in this movement. The final pages are a case in point here: rather than the joyous, headlong rush to the end, there was a sense of reserve, of holding back, which didn’t work for me.  I should say that Brian Wilson (Download News 2015/8) found this approach "very effective".

Am I convinced? Not really, but I think it is a version that will grow on me. If you have doubts, try to find it on a streaming service such as Spotify, and give it a full listen – 30 second samples will not be enough.

Schumann’s chamber music is dominated by the wonderful Quintet, and his three trios are less obvious in their charms, but they are there if you take the trouble to look for them. Faust, Queyras and Melnikov, here playing a 1848 Streicher fortepiano, are ideal guides. They produce a leaner, but not thinner, sound than the Florestan Trio, but in such a sunny work, this is a virtue. The slow second movement has a quite striking stillness, which I haven’t heard in other performances. As with their Fourth Dvořák Trio, I have to conclude that this is a contender for “best in class”.

The bonus DVD – the price is no different to the Dvořák releases mentioned above which don’t have an accompanying video – is of a live performance of the concerto in the Hall of the Berlin Philharmonic. Melnikov is not a flamboyant performer, but he is expressive, and while I am not usually a great one for watching videos of concert performances, I was drawn in by this. The picture quality was less sharp than I would expect for a film made last year, but the directing was unobtrusive. Stuart Sillitoe remarked in his review of the first release in this series that he would have preferred the Trio to be the work featured on the DVD; I totally agree.

The notes, in French, English and German, are detailed and informative, and the sound quality of the CD is all one could hope for.

David Barker

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