Schumann Grieg PCs Leonskaja Warner 5419783783

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op 54 (1841-45)
Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op 16 (1868)
Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano)
Luzerner Sinfonieorchester/Michael Sanderling
rec. 2023, KKL Luzern, Switzerland.
Warner Classics 5419783783 [65]

Let me first say that Elisabeth Leonskaja is obviously a very accomplished pianist and she handles both of these concertos with fine technical and musical finish. Michael Sanderling and the Luzerner Sinfonieorchester are just as notable and generally there are no major reservations about these performances.

The Schumann concerto, as usual, opens at the correct ‘allegro affettuoso’ and then slows for the poetic first theme. I do prefer performances which, if they don’t keep the tempo consistent, slow down a little less, allowing the melodies’ lyricism to come through more directly. Nevertheless, the winds play beautifully and expressively and Leonskaja’s playing posses similar qualities. Some more drive at points, such as in the transitional passage starting at 1:13 (track 1), would have furthered the effect in the first movement and allowed the music to flow more naturally, but it is mostly an effective performance on the more poetic and relaxed end of the spectrum. I found the opening of the second movement just a little uncomfortable, with the phrasing drawing a bit of undue attention when compared with the easiness of say Lipatti (Warner Classics 9029520473) or Fleisher (Sony Classical SK92751). Otherwise, the third movement gets a solid performance, though a little slower than ideal in places.

The Grieg is, if anything, more successful. The first movement benefits from a poetic touch and the slow movement is really exquisite. Again, I think the finale, at least for the A theme, could have benefitted from a more lively tempo. The performance is, much like the Schumann, most effective in quieter moments where Leonskaja phrases so lovingly, though occasionally momentum is lost when the music calls for more drama. But… we have countless couplings of these two concertos on disc and the question is always, do we need more? Well, truth be told, regardless of these perfectly fine performances, the answer is no.

This disc confirms to me a problem that often besets much of the standard repertoire in that over the past century playing styles have become noticeably homogenised. It might be controversial to suggest, but with such attention to strict adherence to the score and such an established ‘way of doing things’, we don’t really need countless recordings of these works. Many performances and recordings, if not identical, often have a narrower interpretative scope than I’m sure many composers would have wanted, or been accustomed to, from performance to performance. I’m not saying pianists should aspire to play like Cortot, or Hofmann, or Friedman, or Grainger; attempting to deliver performances with that old-fashioned freedom and individuality without being brought up immersed in the same tradition can frequently sound affected and overly mannered; but simply that there is a large repertoire of rarely recorded works and new works where current performers can find some real individuality which makes listening more worthwhile. Not that this recording doesn’t have its merits, but would you be any more likely to take it down from the shelf than the records by Fleisher/Szell, Lupu/Previn (Decca 4663832), Zimerman/Karajan (DG E4390152) or Howard Shelley as both pianist and conductor (Chandos CHAN10509)?

For those who want to hear Elisabeth Leonskaja in these two warhorses, this is an important release, and the performances are fine. But another recording of two works where it appears everything that is going to be said has been said already is not the most exciting of prospects. For a truly superlative recording in decent sound, then any of the above-mentioned have something to say for themselves. I myself have a special fondness for Lipatti’s Grieg Concerto with Alceo Galliera (Warner Classics 9029519492) and Cortot’s 1927 recording of the Schumann Concerto with Landon Ronald (Warner Classics 5419747194) although they are mono and, especially with the Cortot, many listeners will want something more up-to-date. By no means avoid this disc, but it’s been bettered elsewhere and only adds to what is really an already bloated discography.

Morgan Burroughs

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