Notes and Editorial Reviews
Francesco Piemontesi (pn); Ji?í B?lohlávek, cond; BBC SO
NAÏVE 5327 (70:29)
Live: Barbican Centre, London 12/1/2012
This is my first encounter with the young Italian-Swiss pianist Francesco Piemontesi, though I note reviews in the
Archive of three or four CDs on which he appears as soloist or as part of a chamber ensemble.
Why, I couldn’t help but wonder, would a pianist pair one of the most popular and most frequently performed of concertos, the Schumann, with one of the least popular and least frequently performed, the Dvo?ák? One possible answer, though it’s a bit cynical, is that another, totally unnecessary recording of the Schumann by a relatively unfamiliar artist might easily be overlooked or dismissed outright by collectors who have already amassed enough versions of the piece to last them a lifetime, while the presence of the Dvo?ák concerto is an unusual enough coupling to provide incentive to the prospective buyer. In other words, the Dvo?ák is the bait to get you to add yet another superfluous and unwanted Schumann to your collection.
My problem with this Schumann is not Piemontesi, it’s B?lohlávek, whose conducting I once referred to as “slothful,” an adjective that denotes not just slowness or sluggishness but laziness and lassitude. And that, I’m afraid, is the impression he conveys, yet again, in this performance. It’s reflected not just in the indolent tempos but in the
approach to orchestral discipline, which manifests itself in laxity of execution—i.e., inexactly coordinated entrances and inexpert balancing within and between the orchestra’s instrumental sections.
Against these odds, Piemontesi manages to deliver a solid, if less than scintillating and less than inspiring, performance. Encumbered by B?lohlávek on the podium, Piemontesi can hardly be blamed for this pedestrian reading of Schumann’s concerto. With outstanding versions in the catalog to choose from by the likes of Martha Argerich, Leon Fleisher, Rudolf Serkin, and my personal favorite since
27:4, Christian Zacharias, plus countless others, this is not a disc I can recommend for the Schumann.
That leaves the Dvo?ák. With far fewer choices available, one would expect Piemontesi to have a better chance at ranking higher on the chart, and indeed he does. B?lohlávek is not the liability here he is in the Schumann, mainly because he seems to have a special affinity for Dvo?ák’s concerto, having recorded it a number of times before (more on which later). This better coordinated and integrated performance may also have something to do with the fact that it’s a studio vs. a live, in-concert recording. But just as much of the credit goes to Piemontesi, who proves himself a really brilliant and thrilling pianist in this score.
A citation stating that the performance uses the originally published version of the piece is a bit misleading, not so much in what it says, but in what it doesn’t say. Dvo?ák composed his piano concerto at the request of Karel Slavkovský, completing the work in 1876, dedicating it however not to Slavkovský but to the famed and feared music critic Eduard Hanslick. Slavkovský nonetheless premiered the work, as written, in 1878 under Adolf Cech. Responding to criticism that the concerto wasn’t pianistic enough, Dvo?ák undertook to improve it by making cuts in the first and last movements, rescoring the orchestral parts, and turbocharging the piano part. It was in this form that the score was finally first published in 1883, and this, ostensibly, is the version performed on the present recording.
But there’s more to this story. The changes Dvo?ák made for the 1883 publication still didn’t satisfy the concerto’s naysayers, so 15 years after the composer’s death, Vilém Kurz reworked the solo part, leaving Dvo?ák’s orchestration intact. In a subsequent critical edition of the score, Kurz’s revision is printed together with Dvo?ák’s originally published 1883 version.
Now to return to the above-promised “more on which later:” B?lohlávek led Ivan Moravec and the Czech Philharmonic in a performance of the Kurz version for Supraphon, and on the same disc is a performance of Dvo?ák’s 1883 version by Franti?ek Jílek leading Radoslav Kvapil and the Brno State Philharmonic. Unfortunately, it’s only available as an import, so it’s pricey, but there’s a link to it on Amazon. Rudolf Firku?ný was also an important champion of the concerto, and among his several recordings of the piece, one of them is with none other than B?lohlávek, again conducting the Czech Philharmonic in an early 1990s performance that has been released on a Video Artists International DVD.
But that’s not the end of B?lohlávek’s advocacy for Dvo?ák’s piano concerto. On a Eurodisc DVD, he leads Justus Frantz and the Prague Symphony Orchestra in a performance of the piece; and, yet again with the Czech Philharmonic, B?lohlávek teams up with pianist Martin Kasik on some sort of an enhanced CD (I don’t have it) that contains both regular audio tracks and multimedia computer files. So, as you can see, B?lohlávek has quite a history with the work.
So too does the aforementioned Rudolf Firku?ný, whose early 1990 recording for RCA with Václav Neumann and the Czech Philharmonic has long been my version of choice. Firku?ný was a student of Vilém Kurz, perpetrator of the revised piano part, thus it was the Kurz version that Firku?ný championed for many years, at least according to the Kennedy Center’s notes on the work, until towards the end of his life, when he came around to Dvo?ák’s 1883 score. The note to Firku?ný RCA album doesn’t make clear which version the pianist is playing for the recording, but as the Kennedy Center’s program note states, “more than a few listeners who were not actually following a score simply failed to notice much of a difference.”
For general listening purposes, I’d venture that you’d be happy with either one. Piemontesi’s performance with B?lohlávek is very fine, and as far as I’m concerned, every bit as dazzling and satisfying as the Firku?ný. The Schumann, unfortunately, and through no fault of Piemontesi, is a throwaway, but I’d still urge you to hear the Dvo?ák by this exciting young artist.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Concerto for Piano in A minor, Op. 54 by Robert Schumann
Francesco Piemontesi (Piano)
BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1841-1845; Germany
Concerto for Piano in G minor, Op. 33/B 63 by Antonín Dvorák
Francesco Piemontesi (Piano)
BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1876; Bohemia
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