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.

JJP

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa