Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Cello Concerto in A minor [22:40]
Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 63 [32:09]
Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello)
Isabelle Faust (violin)
Alexander Melnikov (fortepiano)
Freiburger Barockorchester/Pablo Heras-Casado
Recorded May, August, September 2014, Teldex Studio, Berlin
Bonus DVD performance of concerto only, recorded live in Berlin Philharmonie
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC902197 [54:53]

This is the third and final part of a very classy trilogy showcasing Schumann played on authentic instruments by three musicians who care passionately enough about his music to convince us all that we need to give it another chance. I was totally convinced by the first two instalments, and this one is every bit as fine.

The cello concerto has, perhaps, had the worst reputation out of the composer’s concertos, but no one who hears this recording will sympathise with that out-of-date view, mostly because the sound made by Jean-Guihen Queyras' 1696 cello is really rather wonderful. He manages to tread successfully the almost impossibly difficult dividing line between period leanness and Romantic ardour, giving us a sound that is full and, at times, full of mahogany richness, but also sounding light, transparent and airy. It's the beauty that the ear is drawn to, not the period wiriness, which is a testament both to Queyras' musicianship and to the high quality of thought that has gone into making this release, something that has characterised the whole series. In the first movement, for example, Queyras' serious, intelligent playing is matched by an orchestral sound that is full of Romantic sweep but still sounds grounded in the previous century's heritage of Sturm und Drang, something that's a credit both to the Freiburg players and to Heras-Casado's intelligent direction. That's also not far beneath the surface of the finale, with its busy main theme that seems never too far from stress, despite the beautifully played interludes, and the edginess of the cello playing seems to reinforce this, even if only subconsciously. The period brass and timps of the final bars sound almost martial in this context, one of the things about this series that makes it a true journey of discovery. However, there is a singing, cantabile quality to the cello line of the slow movement that is totally winning, as the orchestral gently pizzicatos beneath him. Queyras' subsequent double-stops seem to give himself permission to wallow in the beauty of Schumann's writing, and he is never less than a joy to listen to. This is a really successful performance, to be heard by anyone who still insists on dismissing this concerto as addled. It helps, of course, that the period instruments resolve the thorny issue of balance that has plagued poor Schumann's music so much in the 20th century.

There's a real sense of dramatic urgency and swirl to the opening of the D minor trio as well, as if to remind us that this was also the key of great passion for Mozart and Beethoven. There is a singing line here, too, but in this case it comes more from Faust's delightful violin playing, with Queyras swinging in for delicious support, and Melnikov's fortepiano leavening, not dominating, the texture. The tremulous, mysterious passage in the middle of the development sounds ghostly but also magical, and the busyness of the concluding pages is really quite exhilarating, as is the overall mood of the Scherzo, which really benefits from the instrumental parity that playing on period instruments provides. The opening mood of the slow movement, however, is dark as night, Faust's violin seeming to retreat within itself and seeking the darkest passages of Schumann's soul. They then find a mood of the most melting sweetness for the later passages, while never losing sight of the music's dark heart. The way it dissolves into the major-key theme of the finale is really delightful, and that movement is characterised by an atmosphere that is genial but, at the same time, never too far from the stormy mood of the Trio's opening, something brought home by the energetic bustle of the work's final bars.

I've thoroughly enjoyed this Schumann series from a team of instrumental soloists who collaborate with one another on the very deepest level, and have approached the project with both imagination and ferocious intelligence. They, together with their orchestral partners and Heras-Casado, have sought to do so much more than simply present Schumann's Concertos and Trios as a series, though that is what they have very successfully done. They have gone further and tried to change the way we hear Schumann, opening up the textures and restoring the sense of instrumental proportion and balance that was so frequently lost in the harrumphing performances of the 20th century. This is a Schumann series for our time, and these three discs deserve to take their place among the most important of the recent recordings of the composer's music.

Simon Thompson

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