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SCHUMANN: Piano Quintet in E-flat; BRAHMS: Piano Quintet in f – Joyce Yang, p./ Alexander String Q. – Foghorn Classics

SCHUMANN: Piano Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44; BRAHMS: Piano Quintet in f, Op. 34 – Joyce Yang, p./ Alexander String Quartet – Foghorn Classics CD2014, 70:53 [Distr. by Allegro] *****:

The Schumann is not only the defining example of the piano quintet, but easily the greatest example as well. The work is sheer perfection—I am not sure that he ever was able to create such a perfectly balanced work in his life, and there are many fine pieces out there that fall with considerable ease into the “genius” category that flowed from his pen. This one came after considerable struggle to produce string chamber music, which nonetheless exploded in quick succession with his three String Quartets in what we now consider to be his “chamber music” year. But perhaps because of the addition of the piano his thoughts took flight immediately after that initial production and the fecundity and ravishingly wondrous melodies set a standard that I personally don’t think have ever been equaled.

The Brahms is a little different; his chamber music, more prolific than Schumann’s in terms of sheer size, also suffers from a lot of variability. And it wouldn’t be Brahms if it was not wracked with indecision about instrumentation and his ever-hyper-critical faculties delaying and rewriting and often throwing it all in the fire. But his Quintet is probably the best of his early chamber works, certainly his most popular, even though it took three shots—string quintet, two-piano, and finally piano quintet—before he settled on the last. Even so, he published the two-piano version as well—just to be sure I guess. But either of these last two versions make for engrossing listening, though the one given here is easily the preferable way to hear the piece.

I’ve had standards for this music for years, and I cannot even count the number of Schumanns that have crossed my hands. Two stand out—Argerich and friends on EMI, and Bernstein and the Juilliard Quartet on Sony. This recording under review is simply sensational—rarely have I had that kind of leap-out-of-your-seat experience with a work so tried and true, but this one did it, and the sound is exquisite as well, though standard stereo. I think it replaces if not retires the Argerich recording, with considerable ease I might add. The Bernstein—that’s more difficult. He was a master interpreter of Schumann, and by his own account he was tremendously proud of his effort, and it shows. That still retains my allegiance, though this one wins hand down for modern sound, and Joyce Yang’s wild and wooly pianism add to the multiple delights found here.

Brahms? Again, an old Columbia favorite, with Leon Fleischer and Juilliard holding sway, though the remake for him with the Emerson is a fine recording too. But the Alexander brings such a reckless abandon to the work, like it was just written and never seen before, that makes their performance so infectiously delicious. It’s impossible to exhaust the interpretative possibilities with these two works on any one recording anyway, but the Alexander has really upped the ante with this one. Don’t miss it!

—Steven Ritter

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