SCHUMANN Complete Piano Trios
“It would be idle to pretend they are among his best works, for they all date from the years when his powers were in some degree declining, but as usual with his late music there are moments of magic which make up for the conventional plodding.” The works in question? Schumann’s piano trios. The review? Gramophone, 1967 vintage. Times change, yet the piano trios still lag behind other chamber works in their rehabilitation, not simply because they’re tarred with the “late” brush (though Schumann was only 37 when he composed the first two, with the Third following just four years later) but also for their purported over-use of counterpoint, canon and so on (not something that was ever levelled against JSB). The Florestan Trio did their bit for the Schumann cause with their Gramophone Award-winning disc of Nos 1 and 2 from a decade ago. But, even more than that fine reading, this new one of the complete trios is a landmark in the Schumann discography, comparable in significance to the Zehetmair recording of Quartets Nos 1 and 3 (ECM, 6/03) and Steven Isserlis’s recent chamber disc with Dénes Várjon (Hyperion, 5/09).
So what makes this so special? First, the pianist: Leif Ove Andsnes has long been acclaimed for his Schumann, as witness his exceptional recording of the Piano Quintet with the Artemis Quartet. He also has a greater range of colour and a wider dramatic vocabulary than the Florestan’s Susan Tomes, fine though she is. Compared to the Beaux Arts, who did much to champion the trios back in the early days, there’s greater airiness within the textures on this new set, particularly among the Tetzlaff siblings. And the composer’s obsessive qualities become something to be explored rather than endured, as witness the propulsive rhythms underpinning the D minor Trio’s second movement or the G minor’s third, which here have a galvanising effect rather than a stifling one. Again and again, these players find new richness in the music, moulding the finale of the Third Trio into life rather than pummelling it, as the Beaux Arts are wont to do.
There’s a fine line between discipline and freedom in much of Schumann’s later music – his propensity for wide-slung, technically awkward melodies can be a challenge for performers – but here the effect is unfailingly effortless. Just listen to the way the opening of the G minor Trio soars; or the voicing and pacing of the first movement of the D minor Trio, its mix of unrest and euphoria unerringly captured without underplaying the abrupt crises that punctuate the music.
It’s not just for their dramatic pacing that I treasure these performances but for their lyrical qualities too: just listen to the unfolding of the second movement of the F major Trio (every bit as heart-rending melodically as the slow movement of the Piano Quartet). And in the “Duett” from the Op 88 Fantasiestücke I defy you to find more beauty and understanding between two string players, with Andsnes the most sensitive of supporting artists. True, there are places in this set of pieces where you’ll find more abandon (witness Argerich and the Capuçons) but these are, to my ears, more probing readings. The addition of the Canons (in Theodor Kirchner’s arrangements) is a final bonus, setting the seal on a remarkable achievement.