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Thread: Piano Concerto in A-minor, Op 54

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    Piano Concerto in A-minor, Op 54

    Cortot ends his last recording in perfect form. His playing, as ever, nearly epitomizes romantic abandon, and Landon Ronald leads the London Symphony Orchestra in near perfect accompaniment. Even though this 1934 recording is ancient in sound and practice, it seems to perfectly embody many of the traits that define Schumann. Indeed, what pianist other than Cortot could ever conjure the almost dreamy, ecstatic romanticism of that most romantic of romantic composers? But perhaps I should backtrack a bit. This third recording of this work by this pianist-conductor tandem actually opens in less than perfect fashion – hence the prior ‘near perfect’ designation. The orchestral opening actually sounds a mite stodgy. But Cortot’s entry is fabulous! ‘Tis quick and brief, with nary a note overdone. His return is even better; indeed, it shows why Cortot is so damned good at Schumann: His tonal coloring is perfect for each and every note, his playing emotionally charged but never flashy, and his tempo is perfect. In a word, he sounds instinctive. He’s in his element. Slips be damned! From there on, conductor, pianist, and orchestra work together in perfect accord. The initial exchange between piano and oboe – conjuring images of Robert and Clara tenderly exchanging beloved nicknames for each other – is one of the most memorable and touching and downright magical on record. Every player involved player knows just how to bend the notes to evoke thoughts of love. Most other exchanges sound comparatively stiff. But that’s not the only highlight. The slow passage beginning at 4’47” is, if anything, even more magical. Everyone slows down and backs off, and Cortot plays each note with perfect weight and tone, and the clarinet, in its brief time at the fore of the work, offers a sumptuous, gorgeous, languid answer to the piano’s call. Among the myriad remaining highlights is a second piano-oboe exchange even better than the first! How the forces involved do it I just don’t know. It’s emotion translated directly to music. When Cortot comes to the magnificent integrated cadenza, it is a thing of beauty. His tone, his wonderfully blended articulation, his inimitable, perfectly deployed rubato – everything combines to create a most wondrous musical passage. But as good as the opening movement is, it is surely the second movement that is the heart of this work. It evokes the most romantic imagery. Imagine, if you will, two young lovers – they could be any two enamored people, but let us pretend their names are Robert and Clara – strolling lazily in a meadow during a slightly hazy vernal afternoon. First they meander by a small, gently babbling brook, their hands brushing tenderly together. After a brief moment of both great yet controlled excitement and palpable nervousness, they choose to walk on. They come to a cherry tree in full bloom, absorb the scent of the flowers and the beauty of the colors, and then – then their eyes meet. A fierce, piercing surge of longing, partnered with a certain breathlessness and inability to utter even a sound, holds sway over the two. The young woman coyly yet purposively turns her head ever so slightly down and to the side. The young man eagerly and clumsily, yet somehow gallantly, darts to her side, stoops so his eyes meet hers again, tenderly places his curled forefinger and thumb on her chin and raises her head to look up at him as he stands upright. Both are eager and willing to play their expected parts; both are totally engrossed with one another. How long do they stand there, gazing into each other’s eyes? An eternity? An hour? Merely a fleeting, rapturous few moments? Who knows for certain, but how important can it be? They have looked into each other’s eyes and seen what everyone looks for but not everyone finds: The heart of a person with whom they share that most important and elusive emotion – pure, true love. Okay, so maybe I hear something that isn’t there. I like to think it is. How’s the playing? Well, if it can make one imagine what I described, you know it’s at least reasonably good. With such wonderful music making up to this point, it must have been daunting figuring out how to end it. Or not. Anyway, the final movement opens in a slightly staggered fashion, with both soloist and orchestra underscoring their parts, and with all involved playing with a romantic abandon seldom heard nowadays. Beyond the bravura playing Cortot delivers, he’s also remarkably unremarkable when he ‘merely’ supports the orchestra. As one might expect, Cortot makes a few slips, as does the orchestra a few times, notably the brass, but it just doesn’t matter. This is unbridled romanticism. I guess you could say I like it, even though I acknowledge it’s imperfect.

    But perfection isn’t what’s needed. I chose to begin my survey of Robert Schumann’s truly great piano concerto with Alfred Cortot’s final recording of the piece because it in many ways represents what the piece is all about. Robert Schumann’s music, more than that of any other composer, forces me to disregard the technical achievements or short-comings of a work and to instead focus on the meaning, the passion, the soul of the piece. Schumann, one might say, is the most romantic Romantic. Emotion oozes from almost every note. And why shouldn’t it? So many of his best works were written for, inspired by, or both, his wife, whom he obviously adored. To attribute the success of this or many of his pieces to his love for his wife alone is, of course, silly, and I’m certainly not doing that. Much hard work went into writing the pieces, and Schumann certainly had to innovate to create his greatest masterpieces. Indeed, his innovation is one of the reasons he’s so great. Surely, though, this wonderful piano concerto is an overtly emotional work and successful recordings and performances all bring this crucial part of the work to the fore. So as I progress through the various recordings I listened to as part of this survey, keep in mind that I must – indeed, I’m impelled – to consider how well the recording under consideration makes me conjure up images or feelings in a manner similar to the Cortot recording.

    The next stop in my survey of this work is from Murray Perahia and Claudio Abbado and his Berlin Philharmonic from 1994 on Sony. Right from the start this is a goodun. The BPO open with force and precision, and Perahia’s first notes are lyrical and graceful, seeming to portend a relatively soft yet sweet version. And sure enough, that’s what one hears. There’s more to it though, as at just after 4’, when the orchestra belts out the music and Perhia joins them with some striking fortissimo playing. But make no mistake, the most attractive part of this recording is the more lyrical playing. The first piano-oboe exchange is lyrical, indeed; the second overflows with tenderness and what one must assume is the musical equivalent of lovers exchanging proclamations of devotion. The slow bit with the clarinet, well, it fairly glows with warmth and beauty. Aw, shucks! Time after time, both pianist and orchestra seem to be poring forth a stream of lovely music in a successful attempt to seduce the listener. Okay, so maybe the cadenza isn’t as striking as the best out there, but in the context of this recording it’s more than fine. The second movement actually moves away from syrupy romanticism (in the best possible meaning of the phrase) and assumes a more playful and joyful demeanor, and one where the glorious Berlin strings provide a soft, comfortable orchestral bed into which both the emotive winds and crooning soloist can climb for some musical affection. The final movement opens in an exultant mood, with repeated declarations of love by all involved. The pianist then gets to scamper around a bit, causing affectionate mischief. (Does the music contain the transcription to music of a joke Robert told Clara and her delighted response? Listen to the string-led tutti between 4’ and 5’ and you be the judge.) Okay, so enough of the squishy tomfoolery. Abbado leads an ensemble near or at the top of their game, and pre-surgery Perahia delivers the goods, and the sound quality is top notch. I’ve loved this recording since first I heard it, and I’ll be surprised if ten to twenty years from now I don’t feel the same.

    Surely that musical angel Clara Haskil deserves to be heard here, I thought, and so her 1951 recording with the Hague Philharmonic Orchestra under Willem van Otterloo received the next hearing. How lucky I was. The piece opens relatively swiftly and not especially memorably, and Haskil seems to merely blend in initially, but that impression lasts briefly. For, you see, her return is delicate and tender and really beyond adequate written description. Her playing is not about power or virtuosity. No. Instead, the delicacy of her touch imbues each phrase, each note with meaning. Her touch is truly unique and inimitable. And this fact is nowhere better heard than in the simply exquisite piano-oboe exchange at 3’07”, or the second exchange, which is languorously magical. The piano part is more impressive than the oboe, but still, it’s wonderful. Well, perhaps her magic can be even better appreciated in the cadenza. Sweeping, grand, or virtuosic it may not be, but her graceful tone, her ability to present each note as a musical entity unto itself, well, it’s nearly unrivalled. And it has the air of timelessness. It’s nearly impossible to call her playing old-fashioned or modern. It just is. Blessedly so. The second movement opens in a direct, brisk fashion, with the slightly subdued playfulness a treat. Perhaps most noteworthy in this movement is the interaction between the piano and the cello. The two instruments accompany each other in a most appealing way. While perhaps the movement doesn’t quite conjure Cortot & Co type imagery, it nonetheless sounds superb. The final movement is less heated than the preceding versions, and Haskil’s soft-hewn style creates an almost innocent sound. Unabashed romanticism gives way to a more subdued yet still effective flexibility of approach that allows the soloist to deliver her typical magic. There are some weaknesses. The Hague band, while not bad, simply aren’t of Berlin or London or New York quality. The mono sound is a bit dry and boxed in at times, and some rather obvious edits mar the soundscape. These are of little consequence. As much as I love Haskil’s pianism, this recording doesn’t quite reach the pinnacle since not all of the elements are in line. But I’m glad to have it.

    Question: Who can resist Walter Gieseking’s Schumann? Answer: Surely not I! Gieseking recorded the work several times, so one then has to decide which one (or many) to get and hear. Right now I only own two of his recordings, and at this point I decided to give his 1949 recording with Kurt Schröder and the Hessischen Radio Symphony Orchestra a spin. It wasn’t really a random choice. Based on the three recordings I have from this particular team, I must say that they really work well together. Their Debussy Fantasie and de Falla Nights in the Gardens of Spain are both superb and make me listen much more closely than normal for those works. (And wouldn’t you know it, this soloist / conductor team has recorded many more works, including the Grieg concerto, three (!) Mozart concertos, and even some Walter Piston.) Anyhoo, this recording is, in a word, Smokin’! It opens in quick and pointed fashion, and Gieseking’s return is magical in a way only he can muster – all effortless grace and nonchalance and pianistic goodness. Throughout the first movement, Gieseking will explode and accelerate with astonishing speed, precision, and power, and Schröder is in perfect accord. As much as this reading is about speed and a near white-hot intensity, Gieseking shows that, if he wants, he can play slowly with the best of them. Between about 1’55” and 2’22”, he delivers each and every note with perfectly judged weight, color, and drama. And when it comes time for those telling moments of this concerto, there’s much to savor. Both players grace the first piano-oboe exchange with some especially appealing rubato, and if it’s not as overtly emotional as other versions, it still does the trick. Then listen from 4’21”, where Gieseking uses his left hand to provide a solid yet soft accompaniment for both the orchestra and for his own dreamy right hand playing. And then he just explodes again. This reading is definitely one of stark contrasts, with heated passion mixing with wistful tenderness and innocent dreaminess, all in perfect proportions. The second piano-oboe exchange offers something a bit different form the first time around; it sounds teasing and flirtatious. Then the cadenza, dashed off with Giesekingian brilliance, is a sort of summation of all things Schumann. The second movement opens in slow, dreamy fashion, and yet retains a sense of sleepy playfulness. One just wants to sit back, relax, and listen, but Good Lord, the piano-cello interplay is so damned good that one must sit up to hungrily take it all in. (Can one detect just a hint of eroticism in the playing? Methinks so.) Then, near the end, Gieseking and his cohorts slow things way down, and it sounds amazing, and even with its slowness, the musical line is easily held. The finale bursts into action, with Gieseking just dashing off the notes with abandon. As usual, Schröder is there to aid things just so. This here closing movement is mercurial, of-the-moment, impassioned, and elegantly colored and played. Hot Damn! This here’s one for me. And the ancient radio tape recording actually sounds decent. Sweet!

    After such an intense, passionate, and fun version, any follow-up would almost be doomed to sound stodgy by comparison. This inevitable consequence was only amplified by my choice: Krystian Zimerman’s 1981 recording with Karajan and his BPO. This recording is, put simply, boring. (It’s not as bad as the dreadful Grieg Concerto filler. Good lord, it’s Grieg, not Brahms!) Anyway, there are things to admire. The opening is strong and precise, from both soloist and orchestra. The orchestra play wonderfully. But everything is so meticulous, precise, and calculated, that any sense of spontaneity is crushed. Zimerman is kept under wraps, though even that can’t keep him from playing with amazing nuance and control. Then, when some little important moments come up, one can’t help but be disappointed. The piano-oboe exchange is limp, the oboe sounding as though it barely emerges from a fluffy cloud of sound. The slow portion with the lovely clarinet playing takes on an almost (caricatured) Rachmaninov syrupy sound. The cadenza starts slowly, and Zimerman only gradually builds up to playing of magnificent stature and technical accomplishment. The second movement fits in with the overall conception of the work, but that means its rather boring and calculated. But still, has the cello playing ever sounded lovelier? The final movement is yet another example of precision and control and beautiful sound, but it, too, lacks life and spontaneity. The concerto is turned into an orchestral showpiece, and an embalmed one at that. Blech! I had to ditch this disc.

    Being a big Wilhelm Kempff fan, I figured now would be a good time to hear his 1953 recording with Josef Krips and the London Symphony Orchestra. Right from the start the thin sounding orchestra hinders matters, and truth to tell, Kempff doesn’t sound right in this work most of the time. He’s a bit slow in the opening, though his return displays some of those traits that make him so appealing – tonal control; superb dynamic control, especially at the lower end of the spectrum; a smooth, never, ever, ever ugly sound. Kempff’s take thus takes on a somewhat introspective, almost nostalgic feel. (Remembering lost love, perhaps?) The piano-oboe exchanges reinforce this feeling. Kempff’s playing in the slow section is a thing of beauty, as one would expect, and while the desired sense of passion is largely absent, the playing is so alluring as to almost make one forget all that. As if to simply show how different this take is, the cadenza is decidedly anti-virtuosic and played on Kempff’s terms. The second movement is more in line with Kempff’s style, and he delivers. While no one or two passages necessarily stick in one’s memory, the whole thing becomes an extended, lovely tone poem, with Kempff letting his fingers recite the true essence of the work with a delicacy few can muster. The final movement returns to the world of the first movement in most regards, and as such it is good but not top-flight. That more or less sums up the whole thing.

    I figured it was time for a more modern recording, and Leif Ove Andsnes’ 2002 live recording with Mariss Jansons and the Berlin Philharmonic seemed a good choice. Everything gets off to a solid start, with both soloist and orchestra playing with nary a note out of place or an unpleasant sound to be heard. Andsnes’ return is solid, direct, and devoid of mannerism, but it’s also a bit cool. Cool is the best way to describe the first piano-oboe exchange, though the second one sounds more engaged. The slow section starting at 4’32” finds Andsnes playing with superb control and a strangely appealing sense of detachment. The cadenza comes off very well. Andsnes starts slow – but not too slow – and then gradually builds up the volume and intensity without ever straining or sounding hard. And where needed, he plays the role of accompanist well. The second movement starts off frisky. Andsnes plays well if a bit coolly throughout, but surely the highlight of this recording is the string playing. The cellos sound amazing, and the music spreads from the cellos with remarkable precision and beauty. The final movement opens very strongly, and the entire movement possesses greater intensity and emotion than the preceding two movements. The problem with this recording is that it contains a number of easily identifiable strong points, but it never comes together as a whole. I’ve grown to appreciate it more with subsequent listens, but it just doesn’t scale the heights. (Fortunately, it’s paired with an amazing Grieg Concerto.)

    At some point I knew I’d have to listen to Sviatoslav Richter, and now seemed as good a time as any. I went with the easy, major-label option and listened to the DG reissue of Richter paired with Witold Rowicki and the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra from 1958. The orchestra and Richter open the piece strongly, with Richter pouncing on the music. His return after the brief orchestral interlude is, for lack of a better or more descriptive word, perfect. Dynamics, tempi, tonal coloring, articulation; everything is perfect. The piano-oboe exchange sounds wonderful, with Richter, especially, changing his delivery to make the music come alive. The second one, while sounding superficially similar, is subtly differentiated so that it takes on a different meaning. The slow section, here lasting from about 4’30” to 6’ is so Richter: nothing sounds especially unique or amazing, but Richter’s playing is stealthily moving. I can’t figure out how he does it. The cello contribution deserves mention here, as the Warsaw cellos sound so supremely beautiful, even at a whisper quiet volume, that they help to create the appropriate atmosphere. The cadenza, well, as one might expect, Richter knocks it out of the park. Power and control and exactness all combine to create an aural treat few others can match. The second movement is a model in tastefulness. Richter plays with a nuanced touch to bring life to every passage. Rowicki is eminently sensible in his accompaniment. Maybe the movement doesn’t evoke the same type of imagery as Cortot, but it’s so pristine as to almost force one to merely listen to the whole without caring one iota about the details; one has the urge to let the music flow unimpeded by something as silly as analysis. The final movement doesn’t exactly erupt into being, but rather Richter and his musical allies choose to play the whole thing with a nicely high energy level coupled to absolute control. Nothing is over the top. Perhaps a sense of jubilation goes missing, but as the piece continues on, there’s an ease to Richter’s playing that soothes one’s soul. Fortunately, the piece ends with a hearty mix of jubilation and excitation, and overall this is such a fine rendition that it seems indispensable.

    The next version doesn’t fare quite so well. Guiomar Novaes recorded this work in the 1950s with Otto Klemperer and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra for Vox, and the results, unfortunately, don’t really compare favorably to many other versions. And the relative shortcomings are apparent right from the start. The opening is bland and uneventful. There’s little passion or strength. Later on, the piano-oboe exchanges are flat and perfunctory, the slow passage straight and uneventful, and even the cadenza is plain vanilla, though Novaes shows flashes of fine pianism at times. The second and third movements come off as rather serious, almost to the point of being stern. Very little if any tenderness is to be heard in the second movement, and there’s very little excitement in the final movement. Part of this is attributable to Klemperer’s very stern direction. Everything is generally well played, but it’s also strict and dour. That can work in, say, Beethoven, but not so much here. Still, Novaes, in particular, does offer some playing well worth hearing. Her strength, both here and in other works, is that she seems a veritable wellspring of notes, with beautiful sounding note after beautiful sounding note flowing gracefully one after the other without end. She doesn’t offer the last word in concision, power, or precision, but that’s not the point of her playing. The Vienna band also play at least reasonably well here, and even the mono sound is pretty good. But this version just doesn’t do it for me.

    Next up is a recording by an underappreciated pianist. Benno Moiseiwitsch made one of his recordings with Otto Ackerman and the Philharmonia in 1953, and as with a number of other recordings by this pianist, there is much to savor. Moiseiwitsch manages to play the piece with what I’ll call poised passion. Emotion never goes wanting, but it’s never overdone or flaunted. One could also say he plays with taste. Anyway, the piece opens with sharp, pointed playing by the orchestra, and Moiseiwitsch is on target both initially and in his return. He plays with strength and accuracy, and with restrained feeling. Both piano-oboe exchanges are taken more quickly than normal, and if it lacks an emotional tinge, it nonetheless sounds charming. Where everything really seems to jell is in the slow section. Here, Moiseiwitsch sounds wonderful. His playing is gentle and graceful, and both soloist and band create a warm, tender sound world. A bit later on, the orchestral lead-in to the cadenza is very powerful and almost heroic, and Moiseiwitsch delivers with supremely controlled and restrained yet emotional playing. It’s quite captivating. The second movement ends up being the core of the work here. The movement doesn’t sound as playful or energetic or unabashedly romantic as some others; rather, all involved go for a more wistful approach, and one tinged with melancholy in a few spots. Moiseiwitsch’s playing is a model of graceful romanticism, and he pushes right up to the very edge of sentimentality, without tipping over into that trap. The orchestra supports him perfectly. The final movement is generally sunny and alert, if not as powerful as some others. Overall, this recording may not be one of my favorites, but it’s blend of strengths makes it one to pull out every once in a while to be reminded of a style of pianism so hard to find today.

    Stephen Bishop’s famed 1970 recording with Colin Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra has just never tickled my fancy. Many elements seem to be there: the powerful opening, the superbly played orchestral accompaniment, the clear playing of Mr Kovacevich. But it mostly falls flat. Every time I’ve listened to it, I’ve been left cold. There’s no emotion, no heat. Little moments like the piano-oboe exchanges are strangely cold and perfunctory. The cadenza is well played but boring. The entire second movement, while well played by all involved, is totally flat and devoid of pretty much anything to fire one’s imagination. In the end, it comes across as a proficiently recorded standard rep work made by a pianist then trying to make his name. I want to like this one, I really do, but I don’t.

    Another recording that doesn’t really live up to potential high expectations comes from one of the greatest of all pianists. Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli recorded (or performed with pirate recordings following) the piece a number of times. Given how Michelangeli’s playing ossified into a hyper-detailed, ultra-precise style over time, I figured an earlier recording would be better when I went hunting for a recording of this work. When I stumbled upon a 1942 recording with Antonio Pedrotti and the La Scala house band, I thought I had found something to treasure. Instead, I found a recording that shows that even in his early 20s, Michelangeli was starting to show those traits that would epitomize his later years. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking Michelangeli’s style of playing – I love it. It’s just that it doesn’t work well in all repertoire, with this work being a prime example.) The piece opens slowly and deliberately, and Michelangeli is all about precise timing and tone control, insofar as one can discern such things in this ancient recording. The piano-oboe exchanges, the slow section playing, the cadenza – nothing really sticks out. It’s well played, to be sure, and at times filled with superficial excitement, but it’s detached and cool. The second movement sounds somewhat better, but again it’s detached. Nary one romantic thought crept into my mind while listening. The final movement ends up being very similar to the first. Throw in a dull, over-CEDARized transfer from usually reliable Teldec, and one has a recording that, while interesting to hear once or twice, perhaps, is not up the high standards the work deserves.

    Much better is the occasionally maligned recording by Dinu Lipatti and a relatively young Karajan from 1948, with the oft-recorded Philharmonia. I’ve never agreed with the criticism this recording receives. I enjoy pretty much everything about it. Only a handful of minor blips blemish this recording. The first one comes right at the start when Lipatti enters slowly and stiffly. His return after a superb orchestral interlude is quite fine. Clean, direct, and uncluttered by mannerism, Lipatti sounds right at home. His subtle rubato and precisely controlled dynamics bring the piece to life, and Fluffy is positively on fire, easily trouncing the mannered, heavy reading he leads for Zimerman. All those little things I so admire come off well. The piano-oboe exchanges are superb, with Lipatti the real star, adding the most miniscule yet meaningful touches. The slow section is sublime, with a smooth, achingly beautiful clarinet and ever so slightly plaintive pianism to hear. The return to more vigorous playing is a veritable sonic eruption, with Lipatti forcefully belting out his part and Karajan leading the band in some nicely heated playing, the strings especially taking the opportunity to dig in to their part(s). The cadenza is, at least compared to the versions I listened to immediately before it, intense and fiery. The second movement comes off as direct and relatively intense, and if not as playful or dreamy as some, it is still buoyant and energetic. Karajan’s conducting is entirely unobtrusive; indeed, it is the model of perfect accompaniment. And how the cellos and piano play off each other! This is very much a young man’s take on the work and movement, and is vigorously romantic. The final movement opens very strongly, Lipatti very much front and center. He is really inside the music, bringing out the nuances and passion without ever overdoing it. Perhaps throughout the recording one may detect one or two (or maybe three) moments where the overall energy sags, and certainly the 1948 sound is not ideal, but those are really the only complaints I have. I love this recording.

    Since I like Gieseking so much, one recording simply isn’t enough, so I decided on his 1942 recording with Wilhelm Furtwangler and the Berlin Philharmonic. While this version doesn’t have the snap, crackle, and pop of the version covered before, it has much to recommend it. The opening is solid, both orchestrally and pianistically, and Gieseking’s return is well controlled and fleet. Furtwangler manages to extract some serious intensity in some of the orchestral passages, and even with the high intensity level, Gieseking manages to imbue some of his playing with a sense of sadness at times. The piano-oboe exchanges sound superb, though curiously it is the oboist who really shines. (That’s not to say that Gieseking is a slouch!) The slow section finds Gieseking offering (somewhat) surprisingly sensitive accompaniment, though his normal attributes are everywhere evident. The cadenza shows the variety Gieseking can bring to even the most bravura passages. His playing is fast and (mostly) exact, and he hammers out the music when appropriate, but he even manages to play some of the faster music with a soft, supple touch, and the pushing and pulling of tempi is so expertly realized that one just revels in the glorious playing. The second movement starts off in a playful mood, with notably fine cello playing coming to the fore early in the proceedings. As the movement progresses, things slow down quite a bit, though ample musical tension is always maintained, and some of the sadness that appears in the opener appears here, too. (The music, of course, contains that element – it’s not all sunny and sweet and informed by dizzy, happy love, but many versions don’t really accentuate this.) The final movement finds Gieseking playing very strongly, though he lacks that last bit of intensity that he musters with Schröder. The orchestra do their formidable best to support the pianist, but ultimately one is beguiled by Gieseking. The ease and effortlessness with which he dispatches the music is disarming, and when he has to, as at the end, he digs in and belts it out with the very best of the them. Yes, this is a fine performance, and the 1942 tape recording sounds surprisingly well for its age, though inevitable distortion and break-up do creep in from time to time. (My transfer is on the Arkadia label; better may be available.) This is another winner, though I prefer his later radio recording.

    Being an avowed fan of Maurizio Pollini, I simply had to include his 1989 recording with Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic. (They sure do show up a lot.) While I don’t necessarily fall into the ‘Pollini is cold’ camp, a number of his recordings from the 80s definitely sound cool. This one does. Pretty much all through the recording one can hear Pollini’s strengths: perfect control of basically every aspect of the playing, though his playing is a little less tonally variable than others; never does he strain, never does he harden, never does he miss a note. Right from the strong, perfectly controlled opening, and the precise, reasonably nuanced return, through the surprisingly soft piano-oboe exchanges, to the beautifully if slightly cool slow sections, and finally the supremely controlled and precise cadenza, Pollini offers an example of note-perfect pianism. Abbado, as in so many of their great collaborations, offers direction as unfailingly flawless as the soloist. The second movement is, again, surprisingly soft and tender, but it lacks the more energetic element of some other versions. The Berlin cellos sound positively ravishing, no doubt still greatly influenced by Karajan’s long tenure, but even that doesn’t imbue the music making with great emotional depth. The final movement is strongly played by all involved, but it doesn’t sound especially intense. Pollini totally commands the piece, making it sound easy. He also plays with a small degree of levity, at least compared to much of his serious playing. Here and there throughout, one wants Pollini to really let ‘er rip, to show what he can really do, but as it is, it is a fine recording. But it is a bit cool, and ultimately I think it is one best suited to Pollini fans.

    The final recording in my survey finds Rudolf Serkin teaming with Eugene Ormandy and his Philly band in a 1956 recording. Right from the start this is too much of a good (?) thing. The problems pretty much all stem from Serkin’s playing. Powerful is an understatement; Serkin’s playing is overwhelmingly powerful and often threatens to crush the life out of the music. Sometimes it succeeds. The opening passage and his return are cutting and almost brutal. Nowhere does Serkin sound even remotely romantic or affectionate. The piano-oboe exchanges are hard, the slow section brittle, though the follow-up to the slow section is exhilarating and the cadenza amazing. The Philly band sounds superb, though, with wonderful winds and strings. The second movement wilts under Serkin’s assault. The final movement, even with its more energetic tenor, does too. Serkin just overwhelms the proceedings with an almost complete lack of nuance. Make no mistake, as an orchestral and piano showpiece, this is an at times awesome recording, but it’s too much for me. The mono sound is as good as can be had, though.

    And so another long, detailed, self-indulgent survey is finished. Unlike in some other surveys, this one doesn’t end with a small handful of clear favorites. I suppose that’s a good thing. Really, who’d only want to come away with one or two favorites here? I simply cannot live without what Cortot, Perahia, Richter, Moiseiwitsch, and, perhaps especially, Gieseking bring to the work. But I also see great value in Pollini and Kempff’s recordings. So I will continue to pull those recordings out for the occasional spin. And certainly I need to explore more recordings. Who knows, perhaps there will be that one that does it all, that one that captures the unfettered romantic nature of this work in such a way as to leave me permanently swooning. That’d be swell.


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  2. #2
    Commodore of Water Music Gareth's Avatar
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    Re: Piano Concerto in A-minor, Op 54

    That has to be the longest post I have seen

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    Ensign, Principal Swaft's Avatar
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    Re: Piano Concerto in A-minor, Op 54

    Wow man, this is the longest post I ever seen in 7 years...

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    Commodore of Water Music
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    Re: Piano Concerto in A-minor, Op 54

    Would be nice with a short summary, e.g. "I like the music" or "I do not like the music"

  5. #5
    Lieutenant Commander, Concertmaster sondance's Avatar
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    Re: Piano Concerto in A-minor, Op 54

    Wow, somebody LIKES Schumann. Well written from what I can sample. Just ate lunch so it is not the time for a careful perusal. Not sure my ADD would allow that anyway.
    Do you write professionally?

  6. #6
    Captain of Water Music
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    Re: Piano Concerto in A-minor, Op 54

    Wow, somebody LIKES Schumann.
    Don't read my Emperor post.



    Do you write professionally?

    No. I like to eat.

  7. #7
    Administrator Frederik Magle's Avatar
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    Re: Piano Concerto in A-minor, Op 54

    Todd, thanks for making these great and well written in depth posts (or rather full blown articles/essays) here, they are a great addition to the forum. I was wondering if you would might let us know a little more about yourself and your writings (in general)?

    (No pressure, just curiosity)

  8. #8
    Captain of Water Music
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    Re: Piano Concerto in A-minor, Op 54

    I was wondering if you would might let us know a little more about yourself and your writings (in general)?

    Sure thing - I'll post it in the appropriate place . . .

  9. #9
    Seaman, Mezzoforte ajw27's Avatar
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    Great post, Todd. Stephen Bishop-Kovacevich's recording is the one I have, but it also leaves me a little cold. Thanks for the advice.

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