Saturday 20 July 2013

Schumann and Dvorak piano concertos

Schumann/Dvorak Piano Concertos - Francesco Piemontesi, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jiri Belohlavek - Naive V5327
The young Swiss-Italian pianist Francesco Piemontesi has teamed up with Jiri Belohlavek and the BBC Symphony Orchestra for a disc of piano concertos, pairing a live recording of Schumann's Piano Concerto with a studio recording of the rather rarer Dvorak Piano Concerto in its original published version from 1883. 

Schumann's Piano Concerto was written for his wife Clara to play and the work is strongly associated with her style of playing. As a teacher, Clara's emphasis was on legato line and singing tone, on touch. According to her pupil Franklin Taylor ‘the peculiarly beautiful quality of tone she produced ... was obtained by pressure with the fingers rather than by percussion ... The fingers were kept close to the keys and squeezed instead of striking them’.

Many years ago there was a boxed set of vinyl discs issued devoted to the recordings of pupil's of Clara Schumann, including a recording of the Schumann Piano Concerto by Clara Schumann's pupil Fanny Davies. I'm not sure whether this recording is currently available but you can download extracts from YouTube. I bring this up, because Fanny Davies' performance is notable for its lack of bravura, its evenness of tone and sense of legato. I bring this up because listening to Piemontesi playing the Schumann Piano Concerto on this new disc brought back memories of Fanny Davies, though I'd hesitate to compare them directly.

Piemontesi has a nice poetic touch, with a lovely singing tone and his playing is impulsive with emphasis given by lots of little rubatos. Tempi are generally quite steady, and in fact Belohlavek's opening to the first movement has its positively stately moments, but this does mean that there is plenty of space for Piemontesi's dexterous poetry; slower poetic moments are contrasted with faster impulsive ones. The same is true of the cadenza, which isn't showy but beautifully thought out and expressive, using rubato and touch. The orchestra contributes some lovely instrumental solos, particularly on oboe and clarinet.

The fineness orchestral playing continues into the second movement, where the beautifully shaped orchestral phrases are matched by the piano melodies, Piemontesi giving the solo part and intimate and confiding tone. There is a fine breadth to the second subject in the orchestra, answered with great delicacy in the piano phrases.

A lovely transition leads to a lively, but not headlong final movement. Here Piemontesi is expressive using articulation rather than heavy emphasis and bravura playing. His passagework has great delicacy and there is a lovely interplay with the orchestra. But I don't want to give the wrong impression, this isn't a laid back account of the work, Piemontesi does generate excitement but his expression is through his finger tips.

The recording was made live, but there is no sign of extraneous noise. What the performance does capture is the fine interplay between soloists, orchestra and conductor. Beholavek brings out playing of great style and delicacy from the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Dvorak's concertos tend to get a mixed reception and his Piano Concerto, the earliest of his three concertos, is recorded least of all. Dvorak wrote the work in 1876 and it was premiered in 1878. Dvorak himself realised that it was not a virtuosic concerto, like the Schumann the soloist never does battle with the orchestra and the piano virtuoso Vilem Kurz revised the solo part to make it less awkward and more bravura. On this disc Piemontesi and Belohlavek return to Dvorak's original work.

It is a substantial piece, lasting some 40 minutes with a 20 minute opening movement. In fact this seems to be a problem, Dvorak's inspiration does not seem to last the course and, despite some strong work from Piemontesi and Belohlavek, you feel the episodic work does ramble somewhat.

We start in fine style with a long orchestral introduction which is clearly very redolent of mature Dvorak. When the piano comes in it seems to be amidst the orchestra, and more poetic and far less Brahmsian than I had imagined. Piemontesi is nicely delicate in the interplay between piano and orchestra, the sort of thing that reminds you of the Schumann concerto. When the climaxes come they are very Czech sounding. The big tune, when it develops, lies mainly in the orchestra overlaid with busy piano detail which never quite manages to lodge in the memory. This is a very long, very expansive and rather episodic movement, and its performance is an amazing sustained tour de force from Piemontesi and Belohlavek, but they can't quite disguise the fact that the piano part is not quite as memorable as it should be.

The second movement is a tender Adagio (though in fact it is marked Andante sostenusto), with the piano and orchestra again intermingling. Though there are muscular moments and some playful orchestration, the main memory is of Piemontesi's poetic playing, complete with some rather Chopin-esque piano figurations.

The fugal piano opening of the third movement rather tricks us, and it develops into a playful romp, perky and attractive, but still rather episodic. I don't think that either Piemontesi or Belohlavek live up to the Allegro con fuoco markings.

Whilst Belohlavek and Piemontesi give us a beautifully poetic account of Schumann's Piano Concerto, it seems that poetry will not suffice alone for the Dvorak with its problematic piano part.

Robert Schumann (1810 - 1856) - Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 54
Antonin Dvorak (1841 - 1904) - Piano Concerto in G minor, op. 33
Francesco Piemontesi (piano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiri Belohlavek (conductor)
naive V5237 1CD [67.14]

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