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Retroactive Schumann; 4 Concertos and a Rhapsody

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Schumann: Piano Trios. The Benvenue Fortepiano Trio (Avie Records AV2210)

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Juilliard alumni excel not only as performers, but as producers of recordings, and here David v.R. Bowles, who earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in cello in the early 1980s, gives us a fascinating look at two well-known Schumann Piano Trios (Nos. 1 and 3), deftly delivered by the Benvenue Fortepiano Trio on period instruments. Breathing new life into these gems are three expert players: Monica Huggett, artistic director of Juilliard Historical Performance (playing a Dutch violin from the Cuypers School, c. 1770), Tanya Tomkins (cello by Joseph Panormo, London, 1811), and Eric Zivian (fortepiano by Franz Rausch, Vienna, 1841). 

From the outset (the Third Trio is programmed before the First) Zivian’s fortepiano creates a lively result, less overtly Romantic than versions performed on a modern instrument. The second-movement waltz, like the rest of the program, benefits from the crisper articulation, as does the peppy third movement, with the three racing to the finish line. The finale, marked Kräftig mit Humor (“powerful with humor”), uses extracts from the previous three movements to create an impish landscape. Huggett spins out some bravura flourishes, with Tomkins underpinning the group with warmth and intensity all the way through to the concluding unison. 

In the complex Trio No. 1 in D minor, two stormy movements lead into the highlight: a gorgeous slow essay marked Langsam, mit inniger Empfindung (“slow, with inner feeling”) and the Benvenue players take this to heart, gently leaning into the phrases, emphasizing Schumann’s melodic gifts. The tenderness and introspection in the movement’s final bars are touching. The fourth movement, to be played Mit Feuer (“with fire”) shows the group at its most precise, ending with an appropriate blaze of a final chord. Bowles, who also served as engineer and editor for the disc, has sensitively caught the presence of the instruments, recording them at Green Music Center in Rohnert Park, Calif.

Rachmaninoff: Complete Piano Concertos. Hai-Kyung Suh, piano; Alexander Dmitriev, conductor; St. Petersburg Academic Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon DG 7712/4764125)

From Hai-Kyung Suh (who also earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Juilliard in the early 1980s) comes an impressive entry in the catalog of Rachmaninoff piano concertos, recorded after her successful battle with breast cancer (acknowledged by the Pink Ribbon Ambassador logo on the cover). She performs all four, plus the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, conducted by Alexander Dmitriev and the St. Petersburg Academic Symphony Orchestra. This handsome recording was produced by veteran Tony Faulkner in the St. Petersburg Philharmonia Grand Hall, giving a warm, clear sonic snapshot of the venue. From the opening of the First Concerto, Suh and Dmitriev adopt tempos that allow the composer’s big-boned melodic arches to be heard clearly. Yet when the orchestra’s suave strings launch into the first movement’s broad theme, Suh surrounds them with a galaxy of details. Her patience in the Andante is notable—never rushing, and letting the orchestral contributions emerge gently, like flowers standing up after a spring rain. And even the exuberant finale, which is played with requisite speed, has a sense of elegance and maturity.

Suh revels in the Second Concerto’s dark, gliding opening, with the strings again making a plush foil for her vivid fingerwork. The final movement falls into place with resounding satisfaction; the orchestra must have these works imprinted in its collective psyche, abetted by Suh’s confidence.

For the famous Third Concerto, Suh favors leisurely tempos—rather than the hell-bent-for-leather approach adopted by some—which means that every last ounce of the composer’s luxurious chords and filigree is audible. The finale has a majestic, even ecstatic breadth. In the less frequently heard Fourth Concerto, the instrumental balance allows many of Suh’s colleagues in the orchestra, such as the piquant trumpets, to peep through delightfully. The Rhapsody shows perhaps the most magnetic chemistry of all. Suh—who won the prestigious Busoni Competition at the age of 20 and was the first woman to receive the Juilliard William Petschek Piano Debut Award, in 1985—shows pianistic skill of great subtlety, yet has no fear in those grand moments in which she leads the orchestra in a metaphorical plunge over a waterfall.

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