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 Recording of the Week  Alexander Melnikov performs Schumann's Piano Concerto

The second instalment in Harmonia Mundi’s period Schumann triptych sees Isabelle Faust pass the baton to Alexander Melnikov for the Piano Concerto. Where the Violin Concerto was hampered by an unwarrantedly poor reputation for decades after its premiere, the Piano Concerto’s difficulties occurred before it ever saw the light of day – Schumann, although a consummate and passionate pianist and composer for the piano, wrestled with the concerto form for some time, producing various half-formed sketches along the way to his reconception of the format. In his mind he refashioned the very nature of the relationship between soloist and orchestra to be more equal, while at the same time moving towards freeing the music from the conventions of sonata form.

Alexander Melnikov
Alexander Melnikov

The initial standalone composition that became the first movement of the Concerto shows this thought-process in action, taking the form of a largely free fantasy in which motifs interweave as Schumann sees fit. Only at his wife Clara’s insistence did he eventually complete the work by adding the Intermezzo and the swaggering finale – and it was indeed Clara who gave the premiere in 1846, nearly twenty years after Robert had first sat down to try and write a concerto for the instrument!

Just as in the Violin Concerto (and indeed as in other of Heras-Casado’s recordings of Romantic orchestral repertoire), the forces used in this performance are period ones – gut strings and, crucially, a fortepiano of the kind that Schumann would have had in mind when writing. The difference the instrumentation made to the Violin Concerto, while unmistakeable, was subtle; here it is anything but. The unique timbre of the fortepiano completely changes the feel of the piece, particularly the louder and lower passages, and in fact takes a bit of getting used to if, like me, you’re familiar with the sound of a modern concert grand. It’s true that the bottom octaves of a modern instrument can yield a glorious roar at climactic moments, but that’s not the equipment this work is written for; the lighter, almost spikier sound of the period instrument gives it a less boisterously extrovert feel.

Schumann’s Concerto is often paired with Grieg’s on disc – the similarities between them are considerable, and it’s known that the former strongly influenced the latter – but I think perhaps Schumann’s can sometimes suffer from trying to compete with Grieg’s altogether more forceful work. Melnikov’s decision to use the fortepiano allows him to take the work out of Grieg’s shadow, letting it emerge as Schumann originally conceived it. That’s not to say that his performance lacks power – far from it, for instance in the stirring, ripplingly arpeggiated cycle-of-fifths passage that recurs from time to time in the third movement – but it’s power wielded within historically-accurate boundaries, and it doesn’t upset the balance that is key to Schumann’s newly-reinvented vision of the concerto.

In each of the three parts of this Schumann trilogy, a concerto is paired with one of his three Piano Trios – a pleasingly perfect symmetry, since there is one concerto for each instrument of the trio! Here Melnikov is again joined by Isabelle Faust and Jean-Guihen Queyras for the Trio No. 2 in F major – inspired by Clara’s completion of her own in G minor, and a thoroughly optimistic work right from the beginning. The first movement in particular is filled with exuberant exchanges between the three players in which Schumann’s contrapuntal writing is bounced from instrument to instrument like a ball. Indeed, the two works on this disc generally show a less turbulent side to Schumann than the Violin Concerto and Trio No. 3 that constituted the first volume of the series – coming from a little earlier in his life, and certainly well before his tragic final decline into mental illness. Both works were written with Clara in mind, and regardless of the accuracy of various claims made by musicologists of Clara-related mottos and quotations here and there, I think it’s possible to hear the affection between this uniquely musical couple in the music.

Heras-Casado’s Schumann project (though in truth it is as much Faust’s, Melnikov’s and Queyras’ initiative) goes from strength to strength – this second volume is just as gripping as the first, and there’s every reason to expect similarly great things of the final instalment in Spring 2016, when the cello steps up for its turn in the spotlight!

Schumann: Piano Concerto & Piano Trio No. 2

Alexander Melnikov (fortepiano), Freiburger Barockorchester, Pablo Heras-Casado, Isabelle Faust (violin) & Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello)

Available Formats: CD + DVD Video, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC