Schumann’s Cello Concerto by Jean-Guihen Queyras – A Review

A Trilogy

This is now the third and presumably album of an exciting series by three outstanding musicians.

The German violinist Isabelle Faust (yes, I’m a big fan, see here or here), the Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov, and the French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras are all great musicians individually, but get even better when they play together.

An excellent example is their recording of some Beethoven Trios on Harmonia Mundi some years ago, and Faust’s and Melnikov’s collaboration on Beethoven’s and Brahms’ violin sonatas are among my absolute favorites (the latter made it as part of my top 5 classical albums in 2015).

In this particular project, the three have decided to attack Schumann, and to couple one of his 3 piano trios with one of his orchestral solo works, playing with the Freiburger Barockorchester under Pablo Heras-Casado, on Harmonia Mundi.

Faust started, coupling his piano trio with his relatively unknown violin concerto back in early 2015. I really like this album.

Some month later Melnikov got his chance to play the famous piano concerto (see my 4 star review here) with piano trio no. 2.

So here we are at release no. 3, focusing obviously on the Cello concerto, and the remaining trio no. 1.

Schumann: Cello Concerto and Piano Trio No. 1 – Jean Guihen Queyras – Pablo Heras-Casado – Freiburger Barockorchester (Harmonia Mundi 2016)

Schumann: Cello Concerto / Piano Trio No. 1 Jean-Guihen Queyras Alexander Melnikov Isabelle Faust Pablo Heras-Casado Freiburger Barockorchester 2016 Harmonia Mundi

I expected quite a lot from this album, given that I really liked the two predecessors. However, on the Cello concerto I’m not exactly getting what I expected.

Schumann to me is one of the highest points of romanticism. I really like the energy, passion, and drama in his orchestral works. However, both Queyras and Heras-Casado chose a more subdued approach here, and I unfortunately constantly feel I’m missing something.

To explain what I mean, let me refer to my two personal reference versions for this concerto, by the legendary Jacqueline du Pré (playing with Daniel Barenboim), and even more, Janos Starker with Antal Dorati and the London Symphony. Do you hear the passion,  the power?

Here is a Youtube example of du Pré:

Maybe I just need to listen to the Queyras version more to get used to it, but so far it just doesn’t pull me in enough.

Obviously, we are talking about an excellent soloist (I really like his Bach Cello Suites for example) with a great orchestra, so fundamentally this remains a good recording, it is just not my cup of tea.

However, going back to the chamber music, all is well. These three trios, spread over 3 albums, will remain my reference version of these works for a foreseeable future.

My rating: 4 stars, averaging 3 stars for the Cello Concerto and 5 stars for the trio.

You can find it here (Qobuz) or here (Prostudiomasters)

Brahms Sonatas: Another Masterpiece from Faust and Melnikov

Yes I know, I come across a an Isabelle Faust fan boy (see my review of her Brahms concerto here and of her contribution to the Schumann trio here). Well what the heck, I stand by it, she’s great.

And in the fabulous combination with Alexander Melnikov even more. Their Beethoven violin sonatas are my absolute favorite version.

And now they release a Brahms recording! As you have seen from the title of my blog, I’m a big Johannes fan as well. So, expectation were high, high enough for me to even pre-order the album (don’t know why I bother doing this, it’s not that you get it any sooner, and I could otherwise stream the content before making my purchase to check). Well, call it dedication, or silliness.

Brahms Violin Sonatas 2 & 3

Brahms Isabelle Faust Alexander Melnikov Violin Sonatas 2 & 3 Harmonia Mundi 2015

Well, this one’s got tough competition, as my reference version is none less than Szeryng and Rubinstein for op. 108! (to be fair, this was also my first ever recording of the sonatas, so I may be biased.

On top of the sonatas 2&3 (op. 100 and 108) from Brahms, you get a set of Romances (op. 94) by Schumann, and a very rarely played work, the “F.A.E.” (“frei aber einsam“, free but lonely) collaboration of Brahms, Schumann, and Schumann’s unknown pupil Albert Dietrich. Frei aber einsam was the motto of Joseph Joachim, the famous violin player, friend of both Schumann and Brahms, he actually introduced the two in the first place. Both “fillers” are beautiful pieces that are well worth being discovered.

But you’ll obviously buy this mainly for the sonatas, and you won’t be disappointed. Alexander Melnikov plays a beautiful 1875 Bösendorfer period instrument, and Faust her regular “Sleeping Beauty” Stradivarius. You get energy, passion, but also extremely nuanced quieter moments.

Does this kick my Szeryng/Rubinstein version from the throne? Maybe not quite. But it stands on equal foot right next to it.

Highly recommended. Plus you get the beautiful Harmonia Mundi sound.

My rating: 5 stars

You can buy it here (Qobuz) or here (Prestoclassical)

P.S. My iMac bluetooth keyboard is going nuts, the “s” and “w” keys don’t work properly any more. Have you ever noticed how ubiquitous the letter “S” is? And guess what pleasure it is writing a post about “sonatas” without the letter “s”…. This took forever to write!

UPDATE Sep 29: Just noticed the latest Classica gave this album a “Choc”, i.e. 5 stars as well.

Captivating Period Schumann from Alexander Melnikov

Alexander Melnikov / Isabelle Faust / Jean-Guihen Queyras

I’ve already praised Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov for their excellent Hindemith chamber album, and the outstanding Brahms violin concerto, but they have done many other beautiful recordings together, including a recent version of the Beethoven Archduke trio with Queyras, or my preferred version of the Beethoven violin sonatas. Queyras is one of our leading cellists these days, and has recently recorded the complete Beethoven cello sonatas (very much worth checking out) with Melnikov. So as you can see, these three play regularly together, and you can hear it.

Schumann

This outstanding trio is now working for the second time together (hence the “2” on the cover) on their Schumann trilogy. This trilogy is twofold: it combines in each volume one of the three Schumann Piano Trios, and one of the three solo concertos (violin, piano, cello) he wrote, in collaboration with the Freiburger Barockorchester (which I usually like very much, although I was disappointed this week by their latest Bach release) under the young Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado.

The series started with Faust playing the little known violin concerto (Clara Schumann even actively suppressed it, deeming it not worth of her husband’s legacy), which is very much worth checking out, and is now moving to the warhorse of the a-minor piano concerto.

The Schumann piano concerto

Schumann piano concerto Melnikov Freiburger Barockorchester Pablo Heras-Casado Harmonia Mundi 2015

This beautiful romantic work is one of the most recorded and best known piano concertos out there, and so you have literally hundreds of recordings to chose from, including some outstanding ones. Among my favorites you’ll find Dinu Lipatti with the young Herbert von Karajan, or Radu Lupu with André Previn.

However, I haven’t yet heard this romantic concerto on period instruments. The Freiburger Barockorchester, as their name indicates, are focused on HIP (historically informed) performance, and even more interesting, Melnikov plays on a 1837 Erard, which really gives the work a different color. I’m sure Schumann would have loved a modern Steinway, but it is interesting to hear how this sounded when it was composed.

However, period instruments are not a goal in itself. The performance has to match. And here I’m a bit torn. I love the way movements 1 and 2 are handled, but the third movement, while powerful, is just too slow,. which takes too much energy away for me. I wonder whether this choice was driven by Melnikov or Heras-Casado. In any case, it was clearly a very conscious choice. The overall movement takes 12:14, by far the longest I have in the 10+ versions in my library(as a comparison, my beloved Lipatti/Karajan took 10:01), and even the recent Pires/Gardiner  recording I didn’t particularly like (review here) was only 11:04.

That said, overall this concerto is still a real pleasure, and while it may not become my reference version, it is a very interesting alternative, to hear Schumann’s most famous work like you’ve never heard it before.

In any case, when you get to the trio, all is well, Melnikov, Faust, and Queyras play together as beautiful as ever, and this relatively unknown Schumann chamber work really shines.

I’m really looking forward to vol. 3 with Queyras playing the Cello concerto.

Overall rating: 4 stars (FYI, the reviews I’ve seen so far are divided, Gramophone loved it (Editor’s choice), the Guardian’s Kate Molleson didn’t like it very much with 3 stars), you really need to make up your own mind. It is absolutely worth checking out.

You can download it here (Qobuz), or here (eclassical)

Am I Deaf or How Could This Go So Wrong – Gardiner & Pires’ Schumann & Mendelssohn

Sometimes there are albums coming out where just looking at the artists involved you really anticipate something great.

So when I read about this album of Maria João Pires playing the Schumann piano concerto together with the LSO conducted by Gardiner, I was really looking forward to hearing this. A beautiful pairing as well with Mendelssohn’s Scottish symphony that I really like.

Schumann piano concerto Mendelssohn Symphony No. 3 Maria Joao Pires John Eliot Gardiner LSO Live

Pires plays fantastic Mozart and Chopin (e.g. her Nocturnes are just beautiful), and I’m a big fan of Gardiner not only for his Bach cantatas, but also for his symphony recordings with the ORR. And obviously, the London Symphony is a great orchestra.

So all the stars are aligned. On top this album has received a Gramophone Editor’s Choice, plus some other great reviews.

And then I start listening (luckily I went for streaming first instead of just immediately buying), and can’t help to think I must have clicked on the wrong album. The Schumann piano concerto is just plain boring! Total lack of passion and energy. And a perceived speed that feels way too slow. Then I check, and it is really Gardiner and Pires playing here. How could this go wrong?

You have plenty of other alternatives here, go for Radu Lupu, Dino Lipatti (a disc to convert Karajan haters by the way), Andsnes again, etc. etc. etc.

But I don’t give up and check the Scottish symphony. Again, I can’t believe my ears. At best, an average performance. The worst is the forth movement which feels plump, and on some occasions (this is a live recording) the LSO even sounds out of sync. This is not the brilliant Gardiner of Schumann’s 4th with the ORR, this is somebody else entirely.

For Mendelssohn, I’d recommend you rather go with Abbado, or Christoph von Dohnanyi.

No idea what the guys at Gramophone heard here. I just don’t get it.

Overall rating: Just about 3 stars (It really pains me to give such a mediocre rating as these are all amazing musicians individually. But I just can’t help it.)