Schumann: Piano Quintet; Piano Quartet in E flat, Op. 47

WORKS: Piano Quintet; Piano Quartet in E flat, Op. 47
PERFORMER: Schubert Ensemble
Schumann’s Piano Quintet and Quartet are two of the brightest, subtlest jewels in the Romantic chamber repertoire. The only practical problem is that the piano – Schumann’s own instrument – can dominate. I can’t remember a performance and a recording that solve that problem as effectively as those offered on this new ASV disc. All the important solo string detail is clearly audible, but the piano is strong and sonorous – not even slightly emasculated, as in the still-recommendable Beaux Arts recordings from 1975. It very much suits the Schubert Ensemble’s style, in which both symphonic grandeur and passionate, sweeping energy are very much to the fore. The old idea that Schumann couldn’t string a large-scale musical argument together wouldn’t survive long in the ring with interpretations like these.


But returning to the (augmented) Beaux Arts Trio versions I find elements of colour, mystery, fantastical humour and tender intimacy that are significantly less in evidence in the Schubert Ensemble’s playing; yet their compelling sense of dramatic continuity would make me want to keep the ASV disc. Perhaps the ideal would be somewhere between the two approaches, though until something like that comes along, the Beaux Arts version still captures more of the complexity and emotional range of Schumann’s musical character without over-interpreting the music. And with the Quintet and Quartet they also offer Schumann’s three neglected piano trios in a two for the price of one set. For now at least, that sets the seal. Stephen Johnson