SCHUMANN: Piano Concerto in A minor; DVORAK: Piano Concerto in G minor – Martin Helmchen, piano/ Strasbourg Philharmonic/ Mark Albrecht, conductor – PentaTone Classics Multichannel SACD PTC 5186333, 70:52 **** [Distrib. by Naxos]:
The music of Robert Schumann (1810-1856) has remained curiously undervalued since its composition. Perhaps the composer’s well-known difficulties – both personal and professional – have had a hand in the negative critical judgments that have frequently hounded his works. Most famously, his four symphonies are considered ineptly orchestrated with dense textures that obscure the music’s inner voices. This judgment has invited rearrangements from conductors like Szell and Walter in an effort to lighten the offending textures, often to the detriment of the music’s gravitas and power. The one work by Schumann that has remained popular since its successful premier in December 1845 under conductor Ferdinand Hiller and played by Schumann’s wife Clara is his Piano Concerto in A minor Op.54.
The concerto is richly tuneful with a strength and emotional weight that seems to sum up early Romanticism without turning its back on the magnificent Viennese Classical tradition exemplified by Mozart and Beethoven. This music is forward-looking even as it also seems to stop and take a breath while surveying the long road it has traveled. Schumann’s awareness of tradition might help to explain the concerto’s popularity with musicians and audiences. This fine recording features the young pianist Martin Helmchen playing as if he has absorbed this work’s rich performance history. The Schumann Piano Concerto is a warhorse and despite their best efforts few pianists discover new and startling truths in this familiar music. Helmchen is not after novelty in his performance but a kind-of steely Apollonian beauty and clarity of expression that emphasizes the concerto’s Classical roots. It is a strong performance ably accompanied by the Strasbourg Philharmonic under conductor Mark Albrecht.
The Dvorak Piano Concerto in G minor Op.33 is seldom performed as is most of the Czech composer’s earlier work. Historically his youthful music has been criticized as being too much under the spell of the great Johannes Brahms. This is another example of misguided critical opinion for Dvorak composed the concerto circa 1875, several years before meeting Brahms or hearing any of his relevant music. The concerto is beautifully lyrical and skillfully composed and its obscurity is hard to fathom. This music is far removed from Brahmsian autumnal sadness and stormy emotional fervor. It is earthier, more accepting music that combines a lithe bucolic expressiveness with the energy and joy of a village dance. The concerto is Dvorak of the period of his Serenade for Strings in E major Op.22 and the Symphony No. 5 in F major and features a greater musical maturity than either of these better known works. Helmchen discovers the concerto’s beauty and serenity, making a very strong case for its wider exposure.
Pentatone’s engineers have provided a slightly distant reverberant sound that is nevertheless always precise and well focused. This SACD multichannel recording provides a wide soundstage whose naturalness in recreating the recording venue always heightens the listener’s pleasure. This engrossing recording features an exemplary clarity in both detail and musical texture.
– – Mike Birman