Schumann: Piano works

COMPOSERS: Schumann
LABELS: Andante
WORKS: Piano works
PERFORMER: Various pianists
CATALOGUE NO: 1964 (available from www.andante.com) ADD mono
Andante proclaims itself ‘devoted to the preservation of the world’s recorded classical music heritage’, and the handsome packaging, authoritative annotation and thorough documentation featured in these latest releases demonstrate the high standards to which the producers aspire. Since the decade-long project is still in its early stages, it remains to be seen how extensive the coverage will be; at this point, some of the volumes offer excellent surveys of specific fields, while others possess less universal appeal.

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A strict interpretation of Andante’s aims is encapsulated in the volume devoted to SCHUMANN’S piano works. These four discs contain an extensive cross-section of performances recorded between 1929 and 1949. Rachmaninov’s inimitably focused Carnaval, Alfred Cortot’s Études symphoniques (despatched with sovereign ease despite a bountiful crop of smudges) and Walter Gieseking’s spontaneously whimsical and poetic Davidsbündlertänze are among the classics to be found here. One can debate the selections endlessly: for example, is Edwin Fischer’s moment-by-moment characterisation in the C major Fantasy really to be preferred to the large-scale structuring of, say, Wilhelm Backhaus? Given Andante’s willingness to offer multiple versions of some works, I might have complemented Rachmaninov’s Carnaval with a more ‘modern’ one (Arrau – whose Kreisleriana and Arabeske are included – or Hess, for example) rather than with Leopold Godowsky’s, ‘romantic’ like Rachmaninov’s but less deftly conceived and played. Collector debates aside, this set offers eloquent evidence of an era when expressive Schumann-playing (Vladimir Horowitz, Yves Nat, Magda Tagliaferro and Clara Haskil are also represented) cultivated a more decisive and spontaneous awareness of gesture than is fashionable today.

The discs devoted to RAVEL’S orchestral works likewise consist of commercial recordings (from 1930-49). I enjoyed this set less if only because Ravel’s diaphanous, distilled and variegated textures are not always well served by the recording techniques of the period. Still, Piero Coppola brings fetching lightness to Le tombeau de Couperin and Valses nobles et sentimentales, and Ravel’s own performance of Boléro (stumpy rather than sinuous, with dance-band saxophone vibrato) supplements effective and instructive renditions led by Cluytens, Koussevitzky, Monteux, Münch and Straram. Other volumes that recycle commercial recordings include a four-disc set featuring LEOPOLD STOKOWSKI conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1927-40 in a particularly interesting programme beginning with the vibrant pioneering recording of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder.

Such anthologies of reissues have competition from other sources, however, and Andante clearly would like to add ‘new’ recordings to the heritage it enshrines. Accordingly, the label has become a venue for ongoing attempts by the Salzburg Festival and the Vienna Philharmonic to disseminate recordings of their public performances. Salzburg is the source for a set devoted to MOZART chamber music. The Clarinet Quintet as played in 1956 by the Barylli Quartet with Antoine de Bavier strikes me as stiltedly dated, but from the same year the Smetana Quartet offers a strong, dignified K428, and – following representative contributions from the Emerson, Tokyo, Juilliard and Cleveland Quartets – the set concludes with the Hagen Quartet’s spellbindingly poised account of K590 (1991), which melds revealing detail with expressive conviction.

Another set offers a handful of BEETHOVEN symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic – the Pastoral under Clemens Krauss is especially stimulating (despite a rhythmically challenged clarinet in the ‘Scene by the Brook’), and a 1952 Ninth receives the full Furtwängler treatment (although some of the vocal soloists are disappointing). The interest of the Bruno Walter/VPO MAHLER set is self-evident, but I feel a little let down by it – the Resurrection Symphony occupies two discs by itself (which makes for poor value), the orchestra is unpolished in the Fourth, Hilde Gueden sings prettily but makes little sense of her three songs, and both performance and recording of Das Lied von der Erde with Ferrier and Patzak are generally (if only marginally) less successful than in the contemporaneous Decca studio recording.

The London Symphony Orchestra performances at Salzburg in the Seventies under KARL BÖHM were undoubtedly significant in the life of the ensemble but do not make for essential listening today, Böhm’s risk-taking fervour in the closing stages of the outer movements of Brahms’s Second notwithstanding. It’s good to see George Szell represented as an opera conductor in this series, since he made no commercial opera recording, but the generally strenuous singing in this 1949 Salzburg ROSENKAVALIER tends to compromise the virtues of clarity and precision that Szell espouses.

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In short, Andante’s undertaking is an ambitious and worthy one, but the generous inclusion of live performance recordings makes the results lively and controversial rather than incontestably definitive..