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Briefly Noted: Schumann with Melnikov

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Schumann, Opp. 44, 47, Jerusalem Quartet, A. Melnikov

(released on May 8, 2012)
HMC 902122 | 54'56"
Alexander Melnikov is a pianist after my own heart. He is in many ways an old-fashioned virtuoso, with solo recordings to his credit in the big 20th-century repertory (fine discs of Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich). To his credit, he has also shown an interest in historical instruments and performance practice, both of the 19th century and earlier. For this excellent disc of the two giants of Schumann's relatively small body of chamber music -- the piano quintet, op. 44, and the piano quartet, op. 47 -- Melnikov teamed up with the esteemed Jerusalem Quartet, a combination with much to recommend it. Both of these pieces are near-perfect examples of their genre in the Romantic era, and both have been recorded many times, a starry discography into which these performances fit quite nicely.

The piano quintet is centered on its second movement, marked "In modo d'una Marcia," a funeral march that may have been played at Schumann's funeral, here given a moody, not too slow performance, while the big movements have an appropriately orchestral scope. The piano quartet has one of those quintessential Romantic slow movements that aches with delicate harmonic clashes (that of Brahms's third symphony is another that quickly comes to mind) -- heard recently with Mark Morris choreography and with the outstanding Takács Quartet (their recording of the piano quintet, with Marc-André Hamelin, is hard to beat). The only omission is Schumann's early attempt at a piano quartet (WoO 32, C minor, completed in 1829), which scholar Martin Geck says Schumann remembered fondly. The composer said the trio of its scherzo movement seemed to him to be one of the first indications of the sort of romantic music he wanted to compose, "in which a spirit at variance with the older character of music first revealed itself to me." Geck is quick to note that the passage in question "ultimately fails to embody the sort of 'aha' experience that Schumann himself ascribed to it." That assessment holds true when listening to a work that is clearly juvenilia, not much recorded after André Previn and friends first recorded it. At about 25 minutes it may not have fit on this single disc anyway.

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