SACD Sound, Accomplished music-making by all concerned
Dan Fee | Berkeley, CA USA | 10/09/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"By pairing the Schumann and Dvorak piano concertos, this disk suggests how worthy both pieces of music really are. Inexplicably, owing to Dvorak's alleged shortcomings as a pianist, his sole piano concerto has suffered from being damned by faint praise. While the cello concerto Dvorak wrote is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece of the cello literature, the piano concerto is supposedly not idiomatic enough in its keyboard writing to measure up.
Meanwhile, the Schumann piano concerto is a peak in the Romantic mountain ranges, having long since overcome its hesitant origins. The composer began with a one-movement fantasia for piano and orchestra, later completed as a full concerto. Could the fact that Schumann's work had no less a personage than Clara Schumann herself as an advocate, be part of the key to its success?
This Schumann piano concerto is not an easy work. While its keyboard writing is less flashy than, say, Liszt; its ideas, its beauty, and above all its Olympian poise present challenges. To master the notes of the Schumann is much easier technically, than to achieve the depth of song and uncanny simplicity required. When you play the Schumann, it is all too easy to fall off in one direction or another, too fast, too slow, too flashy, too prosaic and matter of fact. If the poet wins through the technician, then you are starting to grasp the music.
Paolo Giacometti rises to the challenge in the Schumann with a muscular performance that nevertheless breathes balance, poetry, and occasionally, fire. Accompanied by the Arnhem Philharmonic under leader Michael Tilkin, all concerned quickly overcome any doubts we might have about hearing this music played by even a good regional Dutch orchestra. Where we might have logically expected prosaic music-making, an account of the notes and not much more, we instead on this disc may find a flexible partnership where piano and orchestra give and take, without the whole falling into shapeless speeding and halting in a caricature of the supposed Romantic swoon. While all this comes through nicely in the regular 16-bit CD, it is even better in the SACD multi-channel edition.
Then what of the Dvorak? Here we must admit a major discovery is being restored to its rightful place in the Romantic piano concerto literature. Written some 33 years later, this concerto is simply a complete delight. Like the Schumann, it sometimes breathes a clarity whose beauty sounds too easy. The melodies far surpass even the famed Dvorak cello concerto in allure and freshness. Unless you are deaf to these melodies, they will almost single-handedly calm the dubious inherited worries about the work's merits.
From the lengthy orchestral introduction onwards, you are immediately singing and dancing in the Bohemian woods and meadows. The air is fresh, and if you aren't unconsciously taking deeper and deeper breaths, maybe you should get out into the country more often. The scoring is as colorful and commanding as any score Dvorak ever penned. The piano writing gets accused of not being idiomatic, but if a pianist takes it seriously, it is quite difficult to fault for not being more than it is. Like the Schumann, even what appears at first glance on the page in the Dvorak to be only connecting passagework may open into something else, something more meaningful and more wonderful than simply ornament. In this regard, I would argue that both composers were paying attention when Chopin showed exactly how music was done.
By the time the slow movement comes, the special genius of the Dvorak is confirmed. Still moments of haunting, ineffable beauty obtain in this slow movement. As with the Schumann, the idea is to get out of the way and let eternity shine through. The last movement is a typical rondo - dancing, dancing, dancing to the last just as effectively as the cello concerto ever did.
Again, the SACD is the recommended edition.
Three other versions compete for the Dvorak prize. Rudolf Firkusny played it frequently when nobody else was programming it. His regular CD edition is still available, re-released on a Brilliant Classics box set of all the Dvorak concertos. The Saint Louis Symphony (USA) is led by Walter Susskind. Ruggiero Ricci plays the violin concerto, and Zara Nelsova plays the cello concerto. Another performance on EMI / Angel is played by Sviatoslav Richter, the Bavarian Radio orchestra, and Carlos Kleiber (the genius father Erich Kleiber's genius son). Finally, my personal favorite: budget label Naxos offers us Jeno Jando, with the Polish Radio orchestra led by Antoni Wit. This recording is inexpensive, and it would seem the angels of music were smiling upon all the players that day in the studio. We are given one of the most superbly balanced and discerning performances available. Jeno Jando is a Hungarian pianist whose style and intelligence recalls Wilhelm Kempff. He never tries to do with pedaling what he cannot do with his fingers and upper body. The orchestra is much better than good, and its players were having a very good day, too. At the Naxos budget prices, you can afford the CD, no matter what else you may own. A very good performance of a Dvorak tone poem, the Water Goblin, is also included. Naxos has been releasing SACD, but none yet of this stellar recording. I think they are overlooking its very high merit. Whatever their marketing figures show, this single recording is my nomination for the absolute best recording that Naxos has so far given us.
Even in light of the alternatives, this disc offers us the extra value of SACD sound which is difficult to describe if you have not yet heard it. Suffice it for me to say that this recording in SACD edition, of the Schumann and Dvorak piano concertos is highly recommended then. Many thanks to everyone who made this particular disc possible, not least the musicians."