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John J. Puccio
Classical Candor, October 2010

On the list of grand, classic piano concertos, one finds fewer entries than one may think: the Beethoven “Emperor” Concerto, of course; the Tchaikovsky First, the Rachmaninov Second and Third, and the Grieg and Schumann works, to name a few that pop off my head first. The latter two concertos often seem to find themselves coupled together, probably because of their similar styles and relatively brief playing times.

Anyway, since the early Seventies I’ve been listening mostly to two recordings of the Grieg and Schumann concertos, one by Radu Lupu, with Andre Previn and LSO (Decca or LIM), and this one by Stephen Kovacevich, with Colin Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Lupu provides the sheer brute strength and Kovacevich adds the poetry. Philips originally recorded Kovacevich, and the company has released it on LP and CD several times. Now in 2010 we get the recording reissued by Newton Classics. It can’t hurt.

To quote from the Newton Classics Web site, the company is “a Dutch based record label, founded in 2009. Its vision is to return old friends to the classical music lover, and these friends are all fantastic recordings being sourced from the vaults of major record labels. Most of the recordings which are being issued by Newton Classics have not been on the market for quite a substantial length of time, often more than ten years.” Since in this case Philips have not released the Grieg and Schumann performances in quite some time, it’s nice to see them back in a fresh new package. Maybe it will serve to introduce a new generation of music lovers to these treasured performances, music lovers who somehow missed them the first few times around.

Edvard Grieg (1843–1907) wrote his Piano Concerto in a minor, Op. 16 in 1868, no doubt modeling it in part on Schumann’s earlier concerto. After a towering introduction (which even non classical-musical listeners will recognize) on the largest scale, the first movement settles into a melding of lyricism and bravura, both of which Kovacevich handles with consummate ease. In the Adagio, the pianist is at his very best, presenting the music with a hushed, rhapsodic intensity. Then, in the playfully infectious finale with its reflections of a popular Norwegian dance tune, Kovacevich and Davis make the most of their virtuosity with a well-nigh perfect interplay of pianist and orchestra.

Robert Schumann (1810–1856) wrote his Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54 in 1841, revising it in 1845 in the form we know today. It likely inspired Grieg, who, as I’ve said, probably based his own concerto on at least the first movement’s structure. While Kovacevich plays the entire work with much grace and sensitivity, he never misses the lofty gestures. The piece doesn’t have the drive of the Grieg concerto, although Kovacevich carries it out with such authority, it feels bigger and weightier than it actually is. Again, the soloist and orchestra play as one, an ideal combination.

Philips recorded the music in 1970–71, and in the company’s last release of it (2006) remastered it in 96 kHz, 24-bit processing as part of “The Originals” series. This 2010 Newton Classics reissue appears to use the same master, although on direct comparison I noticed some minor, largely inconsequential differences. The Newton Classics disc is quite clear, clean, and vivid, with a wonderfully robust, lifelike presence. The piano is front and center, sturdily reproduced, the orchestra realistically spread out behind the soloist in a room-filling acoustic. It doesn’t get much better.

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8:37:20 AM, 27 March 2015
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