On 25th June 1850, Robert Schumann’s only opera, Genoveva, received its first performance at Leipzig State Theatre. It was a much-awaited event, as Schumann, widely regarded as the leading German instrumental composer, had set his mind to the urgent task of creating a national opera. However, despite the efforts of the composer’s supporters to maintain interest in the work, the opera was soon forgotten. When conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt first came across Genoveva some 15 years ago (he subsequently recorded a CD of it in 1996), he voiced the opinion that “Genoveva is a work of art for which one should be prepared to go to the barricades”. Harnoncourt sees the main reason why Genoveva has not been recognised as a brilliant composition and perhaps the most significant opera written during the second half of the 19th century, as having much to do with the false expectations attached to the work. “You mustn’t look for dramatic events in this opera. What it offers us is a glimpse into the soul. Schumann was not interested in creating something naturalistic – he wanted to write a type of opera in which the music had a greater say.”
This performance of the piano concerto is cherishable. It was not a work I knew when I bought this record but I fell in love with it quickly. It is by no means a second rank work - it belongs next to the wonderful Schumann piano concerto. At least that must be the conclusion of anyone listening to this magical performance.
Beethoven called Mozart's Requiem "wild and terrible", and that's what we get in Harnoncourt's new recording. Ominous dread hangs from every note of the dark opening measures, the Rex tremendae and Confutatis are driven with terrifying strength, and the supplications of the Lacrimosa, with their weeping stabbings of the orchestra, are freighted with emotional power. The Tuba mirum duet of bass soloist and trombone has a beauty almost never achieved in other readings. Nor does Harnoncourt overstep the stylistic boundaries of this classical-era work; rather, the intensity is heightened for being in the idiom of its time.
Maria João Pires “shapes and colours every phrase, and with immaculate taste, and she makes sure the phrases end as eloquently as they begin,” wrote Gramophone in 1974. “She conveys not just the details but the relevance of every note to the whole … Best of all, she communicates everything she has discovered about the music, and it is worth having.” This Portuguese pupil of Wilhelm Kempff, Pires was one of the artists who defined the Erato label in the 1970s and 1980s. This 5-CD box gathers together the recordings she made over the period from 1976 to 1985 and it reflects the consistent focus of her repertoire, with its special emphasis on Austro-German composers of the Classical and early-Romantic periods. Embracing solo works, piano duets and concertos, it contains works by Mozart, Schumann, Beethoven, but also by Bach and Chopin.
Apart from the Takacs Quartet, whose spirited, youthful account for Hungaroton/Conifer (4/88) of Schumann's three quartets was marred by inferior recorded sound, no single group has as yet given us either a complete Schumann or Brahms quartet cycle on CD—and certainly not a composite set of all six works. So all gratitude to the Melos Quartet for filling the gap. Their playing is immediately enjoyable for its warmth, its rhythmic impulse and its very positive directness. To try and place it in sharper perspective I've nevertheless taken the liberty of comparing the two discs with my cherished old LP set of the same works from the Quartetto Italiano (Philips—nla). For even though this has recently been deleted, I wouldn't be at all surprised to find it back in the shops, digitally remastered, before too long.