Stepping inside the notes

Classical Sounds

January 28, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Robert Schumann, Piano Quintet, Piano Quartet, Andante and Variations and other works, performed by pianists Martha Argerich, Alexander Rabinovitch, violist Nobuko Imai, cellist Mischa Maisky and others (EMI Classics 5 55484); Schumann, Sonatas Nos. 1-3 for violin and piano, performed by violinist Donald Weilerstein and pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein (Azica ACD-71204); Schumann, Violin Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2, and other works, performed by violinist-violist Pinchas Zukerman and pianist Marc Neikrug (RCA 09026-68052).

It wasn't very long ago that performances of Schumann's chamber music -- with the exception of the Piano Quintet in E-flat -- were rare. Now most of these works seem to be entering the repertory -- on records, at least. The reason isn't hard to discern. Musicians love to play Schumann. His music is so deeply personal that it can make performers (and sensitive listeners, as well) feel as if they are inside the notes.

Because they are not household words, it would be be easy to overlook the disc by violinist Donald Weilerstein and his wife, pianist, Vivian Hornik Weilerstein. That would be a mistake. Weilerstein, one of the founding members of the Cleveland Quartet, is a musician with an abundance of temperament, a distinctive, often thrilling sonority and intellectual fearlessness. (He will remind many listeners of Gidon Kremer.) And he is superbly partnered by Hornik Weilerstein.

Their performances of Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2, in fact, match those by Kremer and Martha Argerich on a DG disc, and their disc contains a bonus in Schumann's Sonata No. 3 in A minor. This 1853 piece, written only weeks before the composer's final descent into madness, is almost never recorded and performed and was published in only 1956, the centennial of the composer's death.

Experienced listeners will recognize the final two movements as the intermezzo and finale of the "F.A.E." Sonata that Schumann wrote with Brahms and Albert Dietrich as a present for the violinist Joseph Joachim. A few days after Joachim performed the piece, Schumann expanded his contribution into a full-scale sonata with the addition of an opening movement and a scherzo.

This is wonderful music -- easily the equal of the two previous sonatas -- and the Weilersteins perform it with appropriate passion and abandonment.

The EMI set grew out of two days in 1994 of informal concerts by pianist Martha Argerich and a number of her friends of Schumann's chamber music. The performances retain much of the spontaneity that must have characterized the concerts themselves. The performance of the Quintet for Piano and Strings (in which Argerich is joined by violinists Lucy Hall and Dora Schwarzberg, violist Nobuko Imai and cellist Mischa Maisky) is the prize of the collection: It captures the glow and surge of this score better than any recorded performance since the one Myra Hess recorded at the Casals Festival at Prades in the early 1950s.

Another of the disc's inducements is a lovely performance of the wistful and appealing Andante and Variations in B-flat for two pianos, two cellos and horn. This is, understandably, a rarely encountered work; not only is the combination of instruments unusual, but it requires two formidably gifted pianists. This performance, led by Argerich and Alexander Rabinovitch, is even finer than the now out-of-print version by pianists Vladimir Ashkenazy and Malcolm Frager more than 30 years ago. Most of the other performances on this two-CD set are just as splendid; it's hard to think of a better introduction to Schumann's chamber music.

One introduction almost as impressive and considerably cheaper, however, is the RCA two-CD collection (priced as one CD) by Zukerman and Neikrug: it contains sensitive, fresh-sounding performances of the first two sonatas for violin and piano -- the "Marchenbilder," "Romances," "Fantasiestuecke" (in which Zukerman plays the viola) and other works.

Hear the music

To hear an excerpt from The Weilerstein Duo performing sonatas of Robert Schumann, call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6190. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.

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