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Tully Potter Collection


pIano ConCerto In a MInor op (1846) .54
Schumann’s Piano Concerto is very much a partnership of equals between piano and orchestra. The best recordings stay true to this conception, finds richard evans

he year 1841 marked a significant departure for Robert Schumann so far as composition was concerned. Where previously he had confined himself to smaller forms or ‘miniatures’ for the piano, he now turned his attention to larger scale works, in particular the ‘Spring’ Symphony, Overture, Scherzo and Finale, the Symphony in D minor, together with sketches for another symphony, in C major, and a single-movement Phantasie for piano and orchestra in A minor. Despite his high hopes for the Phantasie’s success, Schumann was unable to find a publisher for it, so he reworked it as a threemovement concerto for piano and orchestra, retaining the Phantasie as the opening movement and adding a second-movement Intermezzo and Allegro vivace finale. The new Piano Concerto in A minor received its premiere in 1845 in Dresden with Schumann’s wife, Clara, as the soloist, and was enthusiastically received. When it was premiered in London just over a decade later, in 1856, reaction was unfavourable, but indifference was gradually replaced by recognition and acceptance and the Concerto became Schumann’s best-known and most-loved work in that form. In Schumann’s day, two types of piano concerto enjoyed popularity among concertgoers. There were those that were part of a tradition perfected by Mozart and elaborated by Beethoven and Brahms, works mostly with substantial orchestral introductions in which the musical argument was shared proportionately between soloist and orchestra and were not concerned with showing off the virtuosity of the pianist. Then there were those of less ambitious scope and design, conceived
InternatIonal pIano january/february 2010


as a single, continuous movement and written to emphasise the virtuosity of the soloist. Prime examples in the second group are the concertos of Hummel, whose work in F major originally interested Schumann but whose design and temper he came to reject on the grounds that he wanted to write a ‘musicianly’ work in which soloist and orchestra complimented each other rather than competed on unequal terms. Schumann’s Piano Concerto assimilates elements of both. It is written with no break between the Intermezzo and the concluding finale, and the composer eschewed any notion of excess or empty rhetoric in the solo part, even writing out the first-movement cadenza and thus making it an integral part of the overall form. This work is one of the most thoroughly self-contained in the piano repertoire, with all the substantial musical ideas derived from the piano’s opening downward cascade. So successful is Schumann with this design that it is impossible to think of the piano part without also considering the orchestra – a genuine partnership of equals. 1940s Artur Schnabel’s wartime (1943) recording has some surface noise, although it is not distracting. Pierre Monteux makes the most of every passing ‘ritardando’ but is always scrupulous in returning to the original tempo, with Schnabel a poetic and assured musical accomplice, particularly in the first movement. The Intermezzo is taken at a sedate pace and has a relaxed, dream-like quality, with the pianist very much in his element. The finale is steady and stately, with Schnabel occasionally getting

in a tangle but possessed of sufficient resource to emerge unruffled. There are many features that will delight admirers of Dinu Lipatti in his 1948 account, not least the wonderful varieties of colour and tone, and tasteful deployment of subtle rubato. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the first-movement cadenza, a masterclass in control and subtle use of the pedal as the pianist imbues the music with an almost hymn-like quality. The overall recorded sound is disappointing, with the oboe faring particularly badly. 1950s A generous acoustic helps Walter Gieseking generate a warm, finely balanced tone in his 1953 recording, in which he plays with his renowned ease of articulation. However, it is difficult to avoid the impression that this is all that he has to offer by way of interpretive insight. The Intermezzo shows his deft touches to great advantage, but the cello theme unfortunately sounds as if it is emanating from the room next door. Some mis-hits from the pianist in the finale which otherwise passes without incident. The inimitable Benno Moiseiwitsch brings plenty of dash and colour to his 1953 reading. However, Otto Ackermann seems none too sure of quite what is going to happen, which makes for some anxious moments of ensemble, particularly in the opening movement. Still, Moiseiwitsch dares the orchestra to match him, rather in the manner of an irrepressible water sprite, as he exhibits an almost miraculous command of the keyboard, especially in the Concerto’s quieter passages. The Intermezzo is enthralling, and the finale a merry romp over hedge and hillock.

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15/12/2009 12:03:40

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