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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers


Wu Han Live II - From Music@Menlo
Ernö DOHNÁNYI (1877-1960)
Piano Quintet No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 1 (1895) [28:57]
Wu Han (piano), Alexander Sitkovetsky (violin), Nicolas Dautricourt (violin), Paul Neubauer (viola), David Finckel (cello)
Sergei TANEYEV (1856-1915)
Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 30 (1911) [41:48]
Wu Han (piano), Arnaud Sussmann (violin), Sean Lee (violin), Paul Neubauer (viola), David Finckel (cello)
rec. 5 August 2014, 2-3 August 2016, Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton, California

Wu Han is an outstanding American pianist. With her husband, David Finckel (formerly cellist of the Emerson String Quartet), she is co-director of one of the most important chamber music programs in the United States, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Wu and Finckel also direct and perform in the summer chamber festival, Music@menlo, in California’s Silicon Valley.

Here are fine performances of the Dohnányi and Taneyev Piano Quintets, two large-scale late romantic chamber works. These works are big in every sense. They generate a large, dramatic sound, and they push at the typically genteel restraints that enclose chamber music.

This pairing of piano quintets is comfortable, although unusual. The link between them is Brahms, author of one of the greatest of piano quintets. Brahms was actually the patron for the first performance of Dohnányi’s quintet. He should have been pleased with the homage offered by the nineteen-year-old Hungarian. Wu Han and friends bring all the fire needed to make this youthful work exciting. Highlights include Hungarian-inflected drama at the center of the opening Allegro, the ardent call of the viola which opens and closes the Andante, and the ceremonious Schumannesque theme which opens the finale.

The performance is very clearly recorded, with a broad sound stage, and with a slight but welcome tilt toward the piano. The strings sound quite well-nourished, but we are also able to hear many details in the demanding piano part that are obscured in other recordings. Although the recording is of a live performance, there is no applause at the end of either quintet.

There are many excellent recordings of Dohnányi’s Piano Quintet. One of the best is the Takacs Quartet and Andras Schiff. Unfortunately, that fine performance suffers one of those boomy and blurred recordings which Decca inflicted upon the Takacs, before the quartet found a better sound-home with Hyperion.

I do not believe there was any personal connection between Sergei Taneyev and Brahms, but they pursued a similar compositional path of classically inspired formalism with big dollops of controlled passion. Taneyev sounds Slavic, not Brahmsian. But like Brahms, he was a restrained man in an era of high romanticism. Taneyev was highly self-critical, and rightly so. But his best works are really exceptional chamber compositions: this grand Piano Quintet, a Piano Quartet, a Piano Trio, and a String Quintet with two cellos. The Piano Quintet abounds with soaring, romantic Slavic melodies, strong rhythms, and lots of counterpoint. It has some of the spaciousness of Bruckner or Schubert, giving a sense of a journey in which passing landmarks are examined from several multiple angles.

Wu Han and friends provide a full measure of passion, but know to hold back a little in passages which may seem like hyper-ventilation in other performances. Their tempos are brisk, especially in the Largo, a powerful passacaglia. The very Russian scherzo dances along nimbly. The Finale brings the piece to a tense and clangorous conclusion.

Other favorite recordings of Taneyev’s Piano Quintet include the Martinu Quartet with Olga Vinoku on Supraphon, and the all-star cast assembled by Mikhail Pletnev for DG. If you want to experience the full romantic swoon, hear the compelling, rhapsodic account by the Camerena-Deljavan duo and friends on Aevea.

There is no other recording now available which combines the Dohnányi and Taneyev Piano Quintets. Either performance is well worth having for its own sake. If your collection lacks both of these fine works, you know what you need to do.

Richard Kraus

Previous review: Michael Cookson



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