Hyperion’s extensive series of recordings
devoted to the literature of ‘The Romantic Piano Concerto’ reaches
volume 38 with this issue of works by Scharwenka and Rubinstein.
Both pieces rate as worthy of our attention more than a century
on, even though they are not as firmly positioned in the repertory
as they used to be.
With beautifully balanced sound allowing the
full impact of a tutti climax, Hyperion has brought the music
to vibrant life. And surely there is no living pianist better
able to bring the required vitality and commitment than Marc-André
Hamelin, an artist who always seems meticulously prepared at
the same time to bring a sense of freshness. He is a true virtuoso,
the ideal performer for a project such as this.
The Scharwenka concerto is at its strongest
when its urgency is at its height. Thus there is a tendency
for the slower music in the first movement, for example (at
C 5.00+) to sound like a longueur, even in these accomplished
hands. All credit to the members of the BBC Scottish, however,
for their distinguished playing, both corporately and individually.
If the Scharwenka Concerto emerges from this
experience as ‘a mixed bag’, the Rubinstein is rather more compelling.
This Fourth Concerto was played by both Paderewski, Hofmann
and Rachmaninov; and the urgent, insistent entry of the soloist
would stir the heart of any virtuoso capable of playing the
notes. Soon, however, the agenda turns towards poetry, and the
musical line is not compromised in the process.
In his admirable booklet note Jeremy Nicholas
observes that the first (1889) edition of Grove’s Dictionary
described Rubinstein as ‘an eminent composer and one of the
greatest pianists the world has ever seen’. It is therefore
not so surprising that he wrote eight works for the combination
of piano and orchestra, five of them fully-fledged concertos.
The Fourth Concerto (1864; revised 1872) is supremely crafted
yet spontaneous in flow of development. All credit, therefore,
to the efforts of Hamelin and Stern in projecting this impression
as the composer would have wished..
The central slow movement has an agitated
development at its heart, in which the piano writing is perhaps
more effective than ever. Likewise the intensity of the finale
is a tribute to the composer’s imagination and his sure technique.
He would surely have been delighted with this recorded performance,
which brings out so completely the music’s abundant strengths.