SCHUMANN Piano Quintet. Piano Quartet. Märchenerzählungen
The previous Naxos recording of Schumann’s Piano Quintet (Jeno˝ Jandó and the Kodály Quartet) has been a stalwart of the label’s catalogue for over two decades but now Xiayin Wang’s with the Fine Arts Quartet seems set fair to supplant it. This is a suitably vivacious performance, well balanced and deeply considered. If there are to be cavils, they are minor: perhaps the episodes in the two middle movements suffer from a somewhat prosaic approach; maybe the quaver up-beats in the slow movement are anticipated a little too keenly, diminishing the ‘white space’ between the notes of the juddering funeral procession. Nevertheless, the acumen Wang has displayed on Chandos bears plentiful fruit here and the contribution of the Fine Arts is suitably sweet and supportive.
Jonathan Biss’s performance with the Elias Quartet, however, is on another level altogether. From the very opening, the almost imperceptible variation of pulse suggests an intimate engagement with this music, once again demonstrated by the way these players ease into the second subject (the tune that inescapably reminds one of the song ‘Who wants to be a millionaire’) – and notice how they change the melody’s character entirely when it returns in the recapitulation. In the central movements, the episodes are crafted for maximum contrast with their surroundings – Biss/Elias extract the greatest differentiation between the Funeral March and its agitato episode, while Wang/Fine Arts maintain essentially the same tempo throughout. And Biss knows instinctively how to create something beguiling from the strings of semiquavers in the Scherzo’s second Trio. The Onyx players, too, manage to hold up certain telling phrases without falling into the all-too-common fallacy of applying ersatz ‘interpretation’ simply by slowing down for the quiet bits. If Biss seems to pull his punches in the finale’s peroration – he doesn’t spit out the contrapuntal ‘tag’ in the manner of, say, Martha Argerich – that’s only symptomatic of the remarkable but subtle range of his touch.
Jandó and the Kodály coupled their Schumann with its great successor, Brahms’s Quintet. Wang/Fine Arts offer the Piano Quartet, ever alive to its elfin lightness but once again becoming disappointingly matter-of-fact in, for example, the dolce chord sequence of the second Trio. They also append the Märchenerzählungen for violin, viola and piano as a supremely generous filler. Biss/Elias couple Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in a performance no less notable than the recent Awards-nominated one from Christoph Eschenbach and the Thymos Quartet, less monumental, perhaps, in that remarkable slow movement – the interface between the early Dvořák of the Cypresses and the late dumka style – but wonderfully playful in the Scherzo and beautifully bringing out the Slavic temperament of the work as a whole.
For a recommendation in Schumann’s two piano-chamber works of 1842, Wang/Fine Arts is eminently worthwhile and occasionally far more than that. This music thrives in performances of individuality and character, though, and that’s what Biss/Elias offer in abundance. It’s a Schumann Quintet to place among the best of the rest and a Dvořák that I simply couldn’t stop listening to.