WORKS: Grieg Piano Concerto, Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 2, Schumann Piano Concerto
PERFORMER: Orchestra of Opera North/ Howard Shelley (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 10509
Here’s something that’s well worth pointing out: a modern version of Schumann’s Piano Concerto that actually sounds like Schumann. Howard Shelley’s performance is refreshingly free from empty showmanship or narcissistic ‘pianism’.
It uncovers the nervous volatility, refined tenderness and dreamy lateral thinking associated with great solo piano works like Davidsbündlertänze and the C major Phantasie, without for a moment sounding contentious or didactic. If you’re wondering what I mean by ‘lateral thinking’, listen to the way the Andantino shades into the Finale like a delicate cloudscape – and suddenly the music is flying.
The first movement is taken relatively fast, and the woodwind theme accents are touched a degree or two more emphatically than usual, but the impassioned urgency justifies it all. And listening to the slower central section you may wonder if Wagner got ideas for the love duet in Act II of Tristan here – particularly the two-note sighing fall.
The Grieg and Saint-Saëns concertos are also full of lovely things, especially the slow movement coda of the Grieg – this music can touch without being the slightest bit sentimental or oversweet. But I’m not sure Shelley is quite so much at home in the robust folkiness of Grieg’s finale – or in the tarantella finale of the Saint-Saëns, which is a touch too fastidious, perhaps.
For my money, Stephen Hough is still the clear winner in Saint-Saëns’s more than likeable concerto, and Leif Ove Andsnes probably has more to reveal about the Grieg than any other recorded contemporary pianist. But Shelley’s Schumann is undoubtedly very special: I hope he’ll do more. Stephen Johnson