Schumann surprise

The Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov is someone I had heard of, but missed seeing when he came to Australia a few years ago. I was therefore interested to catch his performances on the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall. One I have watched a couple of times now is that of the Schumann Piano Concerto, with Mariss Jansons conducting the BPO. (NB: because the Digital Concert Hall is behind a paywall, this link will only point to the trailer for this concert, unless you are a subscriber, or have a 7-day free ticket.)

Trifonov is an artist who seems to feel the music deeply each time he performs it. His emotions are signalled by his facial expressions, and his swooping and bending over the keyboard. Tempos get pretty pulled around around in the process, in ultra-romantic style. Fortunately, Triifonov has the virtuoso chops with which to put his view across. The solo part in the Schumann did not seem to stretch him. He had a good rapport with Mariss Jansons, whose accompaniment was sensitive, but full-blooded in the tuttis. He and Triifonov seemed to enjoy their collaboration. This was one of these old-young partnerships that can provide real excitement as well as deep musical understanding. (Think John Barbirolli and Jacqueline Du Pre in the Elgar Cello Concerto.) After the concerto, Triifonov played a stunner of an encore: an arrangement by Alfred Cortot for solo piano of the Largo from Chopin’s Cello Sonata.

I realised, while listening to the performance of the Schumann, that this music has been in my life for over forty years. The first performance I heard of it was the classic recording by Sviatoslav Richter with the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra, made in 1958. (I reckon I bought it on vinyl in the early 1970s.) However, it still stands up very well, particularly in the DGG remastering on CD. Richter’s account of it is considerably more urgent than Triifonov’s, getting through it four minutes faster overall. The CD also includes the Introduction and Allegro Appassionato for piano and orchestra, some short solo piano works, and the Forest Scenes. Richter was a superb Schumann player: you are always caught up in his vision of the music.

The Schumann is obviously a staple of the concerto repertoire. It was often coupled on LP with the Grieg concerto, another “only child” piano concerto. I came across a discussion of Schumann piano concerto recordings on a discussion group. The message that started off the thread listed 162 recordings of this work. As one might expect, just about everyone has had a crack at it, some pianists several times. Among the repeat offenders: Martha Argerich, Claudio Arrau, and Richter (all 7 times), Annie Fischer (5), and Walter Gieseking, Clara Haskil, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, and Rubenstein (all 4 times).

There are two performances missing from this list, the more famous being Stephen Kovacevich/BBCSO/Colin Davis. (I checked for this pianist under all three forms of his name, i.e. Stephen Bishop, Stephen Bishop Kovacevich, or Stephen Kovacevich; he didn’t get a guernsey under any of them.) A considerably more obscure recording that didn’t make this list is Oleg Boshniakov/Moscow Radio Great Symphony Orchestra/Näämi Järvi. I only know about this one because I have it on vinyl (Melodia 04189-90(a), 1978). I felt a rather juvenile thrill at having a performance not listed on this supposedly exhaustive list!

The record is one I acquired fortuitously. While living in St Kilda in the 1980s, I used regularly to wander down to Acland Street. One of these excursions led into a second hand shop, which was selling quite a range of Melodia records. The proprietor explained that these had been imported from the USSR, but never picked up after they had gone through customs. They were being cleared out for a few dollars each. I got about eight, including a Grieg piano concerto, the Tchaikovsky 1st concerto with Richter, the Shostakovich 5th symphony, and the Sibelius 3rd, 5th, 6th and 7th symphonies. The recordings were variable, but the performances were usually very good. The Sibeliuses are performed by the cumbersomely named Great Symphony Orchestra of Moscow Radio & TV, conducted by Gennady Rhozhdestvensky. All four are keepers.

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