Jed Distler
Classics Today
March 2020

The 200th anniversary of Clara Schumann’s birth in 1819 brought forth numerous new recordings that have helped consolidate her position as a worthy composer in her own right alongside her husband Robert. Her only completed orchestral work, the A minor Piano Concerto Op 7 is an amazingly assured opus for a 14-year-old composer. Commentators have noted how her linking the concerto’s three movements is analogous to Mendelssohn’s similar game plan for his Violin Concerto, not to mention how the slow movement’s prominent solo cello part foreshadows Brahms doing the same many years later in his Piano Concerto No 2. Ever since Veronica Jochum’s recorded premiere (first issued on Pro-Arte, and now available on Tudor Classics), a good number of pianists have explored the Clara Schumann concerto on disc. Howard Shelley’s recent entry proves a formidable contender.

In the opening ritornello, for instance, the dotted rhythms emerge more incisively and the overall sonority is leaner, less bloated, with more consistent unanimity in string section attacks and releases than in most of the other recordings. In addition, Shelley brings a cogent sense of foreground and background to the busily rippling passagework, employing rubato mainly to underline moments of particular harmonic invention. He takes the Andante’s 'non troppo' directive very much to heart, projecting a feeling of two beats to the bar rather than four. Shelley’s observance of the composer’s legato slurs and marcato stresses further enhance the sophistication of expression and proportion that he brings to the solo part. It markedly contrasts with Isata Kanneh-Mason’s slower and less shapely interpretation on Decca. However, Kanneh-Mason has the edge in the finale, abetted by Decca’s more vivid sonics and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s exuberant swagger under Holly Mathieson’s leadership.

Ferdinand Hiller’s Konzertstücke also unfolds in three continuous sections, capped by a delightful Tarantella. Again, Shelley’s assertive and virile pianism primarily impresses in the first two parts, but the collective energy flags in the Tarantella, where Jerome Rose’s crisper, harder-hitting pianism makes a stronger impact in a 1970s Vox recording with the Luxembourg Radio Symphony. The Herz Rondo is valuable mainly for the finesse and evenness with which Shelley dispatches its rapid passagework.

Just why Kalkbrenner titled his Op 113 'Le rêve' is anyone’s guess, since the music is fairly volatile and stormy, and jam packed with ideas. The ideas admittedly do not run deep, yet it’s hard not to be seduced by the flashy and scintillating piano writing, as well as by Shelley’s effortlessly rippling virtuosity. Jeremy Nicholas’ excellent and well-researched booklet notes also deserve mention. All told, another worthy entry in Hyperion’s valuable Romantic Piano Concerto series.

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