Recordings of Felix Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64, are abundant, and even the pairing with the rarer Robert Schumann Violin Concerto, WoO 23, of 1853 are not as infrequent as they used to be. The thorny Schumann concerto has undergone a reevaluation upward, and plenty of players now concur with the judgment of Yehudi Menuhin: "This concerto is the historically missing link of the violin literature; it is the bridge between the Beethoven and the Brahms concertos, though leaning more towards Brahms." Violinist Carolin Widmann who (like the ECM label on which the album appears) has focused mostly on contemporary music, takes up the challenge of providing something new here, and she meets it. The central fact of the recording is that Widmann conducts the Chamber Orchestra of Europe from the violin. Others have done this before, but few have pursued the implications of the technique as far as Widmann has: the performances are unusually light and transparent, and they are perhaps thus in accord with the sounds an orchestra of the middle 19th century might have produced. Sample the unusually lively, sprightly reading of the Mendelssohn concerto's finale.
Jennifer Pike, who won the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition at the tender age of 12, appears to have survived the perils of prodigyhood and entered her early twenties with musical intelligence intact. Here she offers a terrific program of music from the middle of the 19th century; all of it is abstract, but it brings vividly to mind the crucial trio of creative figures who met in the early 1850s: the ailing Robert Schumann, his musically frustrated wife Clara, and the young Johannes Brahms, mooning over the latter.
Shafran became something of a legendary figure amongst cellists. He made a fabled child prodigy debut at ten, playing the Rococo Variations with the Leningrad Philharmonic conducted by Albert Coates. In later years, though, he toured abroad very seldom – making sporadic visits in the 1960s to Rome, New York and London and a succession of visits to Japan where he was immensely popular and had a number of students. Towards the end of his life he gave two celebrated recitals at Wigmore Hall.
The history of the Russian chamber ensemble of the middle of the 20th century, in all possibility, did not know a more intricate yet remarkable brilliant group of musicians than the celebrated trio of Emil Gilels. Leonid Kogan and Mstislav Rostropovich. All to different in their essence were these three artistic individualities – these three virtuosos, spoilt children of fortune, who were brought together at various stages of disclosure of their outstanding talents. At that, there was not a great difference between their respective ages – Gilels was born in 1916, Kogan was born in 1924 and Rostropovich was born in 1927. Nonetheless, whereas Gilels was already able to reconsider and revise in many ways his principles of work, departing further and further from a pure demonstration of capabilities of his breathtaking technique, Rostropovich and Kogan were still passing through their lengthy period of thrill over their virtuosic powers, affecting their audiences in a straightforward manner.
While Pollini's Schumann is not to everyone's taste – some find his virtuoso playing too cool and his bracing interpretations too intellectual – for those who revere Pollini, his Schumann is a tonic after nearly two centuries of sloppy and sentimental performance practice. Pollini's Davidsbündlertänze may not be as poetic as Arrau's and his Kreisleriana may not be as fantastic as Argerich's, but he finds meanings and significances in the works that no one ever has before. Pollini's Concert sans orchestre and Allegro in B minor are second to none in technical panache and interpretive aplomb. DG's piano sound is as real as playing the piano.
Ransom Wilson has long been recognized internationally as one of the greatest flutists of his generation. After graduation from the Juilliard School in 1973, he spent a year in Paris as a private student of Jean-Pierre Rampal. In 1976 he gave his official debut concert in New York City, with Rampal as his guest artist. An exclusive recording contract with Angel/EMI followed soon thereafter, along with extensive performances all over the world.
Finnish pianist Janne Mertanen, known mostly for Chopin recordings, here takes on probably the most-often-recorded pairing in the Romantic piano literature, the Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54, of Schumann, and the Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 16, of Grieg. Does Mertanen have anything new to say here? Perhaps not totally, but his Grieg, from the very first grand gesture, is in the top rank of recordings of this well-loved work. The first movement is a dramatic tour de force, with the momentum carrying the music through what is often a rather leisurely episodic structure, and the central-movement nocturne is extremely delicately done.
In this superb audiophile package of the four symphonies of Robert Schumann, Simon Gaudenz, and the Odense Symphony Orchestra give clear and focused performances that serve to clarify the often-criticized orchestration and to create a nearly chamber-like atmosphere in many passages. By avoiding the conventional homogenous orchestral blend, reducing vibrato in the strings, and emphasizing the distinctive timbres of the woodwinds and brass, Gaudenz brightens Schumann's timbral palette considerably and balances dynamics to make textures more transparent. Beyond this, Gaudenz keeps the tempos fleet and the rhythms spry, and opens up the music to let it breathe.
Hailed by some as the third primary figure among great Russian pianists of the twentieth century's second half, Lazar Berman has occasionally lived up to that reputation, but frequently has not. Emil Gilels, the first genius-level Soviet pianist to become well-known in the West, insisted that there was one artist, yet unheard in the West, who was the greater artist. Later, after Sviatoslav Richter's arrival in Europe and America, most felt Gilels had been correct. Still later, however, Gilels maintained that yet another pianist, Lazar Berman, was the finest of the three. After the initial stir created by Berman's 1976 American tour and other appearances in the West, critical opinion held that, while he was an extraordinary if uneven artist, he was not superior to the protean Richter or to the clear-minded Gilels. Still, his art was of an order by no means common.