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Darlings of the Muses

Gabriela Montero (piano); Canada's National Arts Centre Orchestra/Alexander Shelley (Analekta)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

Darlings of the Muses
R Schumann: Symphony No. 1 in B flat major, Op. 38 ‘Spring’; C Schumann: Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 7; Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68
Gabriela Montero (piano); Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra/Alexander Shelley
Analekta AN 288778   119:11 mins (2 discs)

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You can blame Robert Schumann for that title: ‘Darling of the Muses’ was (in rough translation) what he termed the youthful Johannes Brahms, who arrived on his doorstep one autumn day in 1853. The rest is history. Alexander Shelley has assembled music by those composers and Clara Schumann, a triumvirate whose impact on the music of their time was simply immeasurable. Brahms and Robert Schumann’s first symphonies are matched with Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto, which at first might seem at a disadvantage, since it was written when its composer was a virtuoso prodigy celebrated throughout Europe, yet still only 13-16 years old.

Gabriela Montero makes the most excellent of cases for it. Her playing is free-spirited, fire-centred and uninhibitedly expressive, with a sense of rhetoric and flexibility that suggests the romantic era itself: you can almost see the young Clara mesmerising her early audiences across Europe. The recording also includes Montero in her legendary improvisation mode: these examples find her exploring pianistic tapestries and melodic outlines derived from the soundworld of Clara Schumann, offering inspired and extremely touching performances.

As for the symphonies, Shelley wields a taut baton, presenting textures that are slender yet not too wispy, filled with spirited rhythms but sensibly measured tempos. Recorded sound quality could at times benefit from more clarity. There are, too, a few moments of questionable tone from certain parts of the orchestra; many better-played recordings of these symphonies do inevitably exist. But as a concept album the whole adds up to a super assemblage, with Montero a shining star at its centre.

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Jessica Duchen