Grieg and Schumann: Piano Concertos (CD review)

Stephen Kovacevich, piano; Colin Davis, BBC Symphony Orchestra.  Newton Classics 8802019.

On the list of grand, classic piano concertos, one finds fewer entries than one may think: the Beethoven "Emperor" Concerto, of course; the Tchaikovsky First, the Rachmaninov Second and Third, and the Grieg and Schumann works, to name a few that pop off my head first. The latter two concertos often seem to find themselves coupled together, probably because of their similar styles and relatively brief playing times.

Anyway, since the early Seventies I've been listening mostly to two recordings of the Grieg and Schumann concertos, one by Radu Lupu, with Andre Previn and LSO (Decca or LIM), and this one by Stephen Kovacevich, with Colin Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Lupu provides the sheer brute strength and Kovacevich adds the poetry. Philips originally recorded Kovacevich, and the company has released it on LP and CD several times. Now in 2010 we get the recording reissued by Newton Classics. It can't hurt.

To quote from the Newton Classics Web site, the company is "a Dutch based record label, founded in 2009. Its vision is to return old friends to the classical music lover, and these friends are all fantastic recordings being sourced from the vaults of major record labels. Most of the recordings which are being issued by Newton Classics have not been on the market for quite a substantial length of time, often more than ten years." Since in this case Philips have not released the Grieg and Schumann performances in quite some time, it's nice to see them back in a fresh new package. Maybe it will serve to introduce a new generation of music lovers to these treasured performances, music lovers who somehow missed them the first few times around.

Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) wrote his Piano Concerto in a minor, Op. 16 in 1868, no doubt modeling it in part on Schumann's earlier concerto. After a towering introduction (which even non classical-musical listeners will recognize) on the largest scale, the first movement settles into a melding of lyricism and bravura, both of which Kovacevich handles with consummate ease. In the Adagio, the pianist is at his very best, presenting the music with a hushed, rhapsodic intensity. Then, in the playfully infectious finale with its reflections of a popular Norwegian dance tune, Kovacevich and Davis make the most of their virtuosity with a well-nigh perfect interplay of pianist and orchestra.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856) wrote his Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54 in 1841, revising it in 1845 in the form we know today. It likely inspired Grieg, who, as I've said, probably based his own concerto on at least the first movement's structure. While Kovacevich plays the entire work with much grace and sensitivity, he never misses the lofty gestures. The piece doesn't have the drive of the Grieg concerto, although Kovacevich carries it out with such authority, it feels bigger and weightier than it actually is. Again, the soloist and orchestra play as one, an ideal combination.

Philips recorded the music in 1970-71, and in the company's final release of it (2006) they used a remaster in 96 kHz, 24-bit processing as part of their "Originals" series. This 2010 Newton Classics reissue appears to use the same master, although on direct comparison I noticed some minor, largely inconsequential differences. The Newton Classics disc is quite clear, clean, and vivid, with a wonderfully robust, lifelike presence. The piano is front and center, sturdily reproduced, the orchestra realistically spread out behind the soloist in a room-filling acoustic. It doesn't get much better.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa