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CD Review

Robert Schumann

Piano Works

  • Papillons, Op. 2
  • Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6
  • Carnaval, Op. 9
  • Études symphoniques, Op. 13
  • Konzertstück, Op. 92 *
  • Kinderszenen, Op. 15
  • Kreisleriana, Op. 16
  • Fantasie in C Major, Op. 17
  • Arabeske in C Major, Op. 18
  • Humoreske, Op. 20
  • Bunte Blätter, Op. 99
  • Piano Sonata #2 in G minor, Op. 22
  • Nachtstücke, Op. 23
  • Romances, Op. 28
  • Waldszenen, Op. 82
  • Piano Concerto *
Wilhelm Kempff, piano
* Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Rafael Kubelik
Deutsche Grammophon Collector's Edition 4778693 5CDs
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon JapanOrder Now from Find it at JPC

When is a bonus not a bonus? These celebrated solo recordings have already been previously released together, and now appear in Universal's "Collector's Edition". The Concerto on the other hand, was only just released as an import in the same company's "Virtuoso" line. So to have all of these recordings under one roof, in vintage sound from the Yellow Label, should be a joy, right? Almost.

The solo selections demonstrate Kempff's storied poise and artistry. There are no gimmicks or tricks. This is beautiful playing, plain and simple, captured wonderfully by the Deutsche Grammophon engineers. Mind you, it's not all just pretty music. Kempff clearly sees the link between Classicism (a genre of music in which he excelled) and Romanticism. So within that poise is a great deal of strength. Kempff was also an exceptional Brahms pianist, and it's a joy to hear the same qualities that he brought to that composer and to Beethoven on display here. Highlights are practically the box. While I won't pretend that all – or even most – of the box is reference material, I can't deny that nearly all of it is of a very high quality. The larger works are notable for their uncommon shapeliness and cogency, while the smaller works are all distinguished. I won't speak on the works at length, especially as many collectors will doubtless own previous releases. For the novice, there are few sets on the market that allow such a wide range of Schumann's solo piano work, and few that match this in terms of consistency.

It's such a surprise then that the Concerto is almost a complete failure. I read a few negative reviews of Kempff's monophonic version, and it turns out that nobody much enjoys the stereo remake, either. As fine a solo pianist as he was, I find his collaborations with orchestra less successful as a whole. On paper, this looks great. Kubelik recorded the Schumann symphonic canon twice, once with these very forces on Sony Classical. Kempff is simply overmatched, and badly. He also fails to find any joy in the music at all; the whole affair is either labored or clipped. Kubelik brings out some wind detail, but otherwise seems just as uninspired. Thank god the coupled Konzertstück has some grace, but it still feels just a touch stiff. At least it does something, and Kubelik is more sympathetic at the helm. Should you own the earlier box set, or the single disc issues on Eloquence and elsewhere, there is no reason to invest again. For the rest of us, try to find the earlier box used, because disc five is a clunker. When is a bonus not a bonus?

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman