Schumann’s Piano Concerto: A Concerto without Piano?

CD Review of Schumann (Jan Lisiecki, Antonio Pappano, Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia)

LisieckiSchumannPhoto

Lisiecki, Jan. Schumann. Recorded with the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, conducted by Antonio Pappano, September 2015. DG Deutsche Grammophon 4795327, 2016. CD.

Franz Liszt once referred to Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto as a “concerto without piano,” drawing attention to Schumann’s unconventional understanding of the concerto as a genre. Schumann – who strongly disapproved of virtuosity as an end in itself – sought to return to the roots of the concerto tradition, when the soloist and orchestra collaborated as equals. In this recording, Jan Lisiecki (pronounced lee-shetz-kee) and Antonio Pappano with the Santa Cecilia Orchestra accomplish exactly what Schumann had in mind with the idea of a concerto as a conversation between equals.

This idea of the concerto as a conversation between equals is nothing new for listeners already familiar with Antonio Pappano’s collaboration with Leif Ove Andsnes on the Rachmaninoff piano concertos (see, for example, their recording of the first movement of the Second Piano Concerto). Normally I associate the Rachmaninoff concertos with virtuosity at its most extreme – the sort that Schumann would have disapproved of – but Andsnes and Pappano manage to make the piano and orchestra equal partners. Pappano brings out the intricate melodic lines in the orchestra, and Andnes explores with great sensitivity those moments when the soloist functions as accompanist. As a result, I had very high expectations for this Schumann album. And, on the whole, I was not disappointed. Lisiecki and Pappano provide a new and fresh reading of Schumann’s works for piano and orchestra that is in keeping with the high level of Pappano’s previous collaborative projects.

This Schumann album was my first experience listening to the 21-year-old pianist Jan Lisiecki, who has already released two CDs on DG. Born in Canada and of Polish ancestry, Lisiecki performed the Schumann concerto with Pappano at the BBC Proms in 2013, and subsequently toured with Pappano as an alternate pianist for Martha Argerich. Not surprisingly, one hears a bit of Argerich’s influence in his playing. Like Argerich, Lisiecki has an energetic and refined sound, and his playing shows great sensitivity to the musicians with whom he is collaborating. Lisiecki’s outstanding talent invites comparison with Daniil Trifonov, another young pianist that has already accomplished so much and promises to become one of the great artists of his generation.

My favorite part of this Schumann album is the first movement of the Piano Concerto. It best exemplifies Schumann’s idea of the concerto as a conversation between equals. The first theme initially appears in the oboe and is then taken up by the piano. Lisiecki captures the delicate, lyrical sound of the woodwinds. When the melody next moves to the first violins, the soloist becomes an accompanist, decorating the strings’ stepwise motion with rippling arpeggios. The most magical moment occurs in the middle of the movement when the piano moves to A-flat major over a pedal tone in the low strings (4:31). The melody passes from the piano to the clarinet, and for a moment the clarinet sounds as if it is an ethereal tone emanating from the piano. I am reminded of the scene in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s fairy tale “The Golden Pot” when the protagonist Anselmus dozes by the river and awakens to the sound of magical snakes whispering to him from the bushes. The orchestra plays a loud, abrupt chord (5:54), and suddenly we are back in the everyday reality of life.

Along with the Piano Concerto, the album contains two lesser-known works for piano and orchestra by Schumann: the Introduction and Allegro appassionato, op. 92, and Introduction and Concert-Allegro, op. 134. This is the first time that the latter has been recorded on the DG label. There are moments of great beauty in these works, and it is a shame that they are not performed more frequently. The CD concludes with an encore number, “Träumerei” from Kinderszenen. As a whole, this album is very impressive, and I highly recommend it. Kudos to Lisiecki, Pappano, and the Santa Cecilia Orchestra for providing a fresh reading of Robert Schumann’s works for piano and orchestra.

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