GRIEG; SAINT-SAËNS; SCHUMANN Piano Concertos
What a good idea to add to that favourite among LP couplings Saint-Saëns’s most Bachian concerto, No 2. And the pleasure doesn’t stop there. Howard Shelley is one of those musicians who quietly goes about his pianistic (and now conductorly) business without grabbing the limelight except for the odd award, but who is consistently impressive, unfailingly musical and only goes into the studio when he has something to say about a work. That is certainly the case here.
Having loved the Schumann from an early age, a few years ago I developed something of an aversion to it, possibly brought on by too many laboured performances, a slow approach to the middle-movement Intermezzo being a particular bugbear. So it was a particular delight to hear a reading as fleet and joyous as this one. These are intimate performances, an effect no doubt enhanced by the fact that Shelley directs from the piano. Intimate but also sharply characterised. And when virtuosity is required, Shelley provides it in spades. Take the finale of the Schumann: textures are wonderfully transparent, the dotted rhythms are perky and precise, and there are plenty of striking colours from the orchestra (which throughout the disc proves itself a fine ensemble, with some particularly outstanding wind-players).
Shelley is just as persuasive in the Grieg, coaxing from the orchestra a real sense of narrative, some lovely oboe-playing and allowing the big tunes due space but never over-indulging them. The concerto’s irresistible yearning quality is well caught too, particularly in the central movement, where he is almost a match for Lipatti. Again, tempi are generally fleet, and Shelley pays attention both to the marcato marking of the finale and its folk tinges without overstatement. These are certainly performances to put alongside those of Lipatti, Kovacevich, Argerich and Andsnes.
Technically, the Saint-Saëns is an ideal vehicle for Shelley’s fingery kind of pianism and he is exceptional in the Allegro scherzando, the movement that out-Mendelssohns Mendelssohn. Again, the orchestra is utterly focused – more so even than Hough’s larger-sounding CBSO, though in the Presto finale it is Hough who breaks all speed records. I like the greater lightness of Shelley, however, and the recorded quality here, as elsewhere, is exemplary.