Starker excels in difficult work

CLASSICAL SOUNDS

February 04, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Robert Schumann, Cello Concerto, Paul Hindemith, Cello Concerto, performed by cellist Janos Starker and the Bamberg Symphony (RCA Victor Red Seal 09026-68027); Schumann, Piano Concerto, Richard Strauss, "Burleske," performed by pianist Helene Grimaud and the German Symphony Orchestra of Berlin, David Zinman conducting (Erato 0630-11727); Schumann, Piano Concerto, Sergei Prokofiev, Piano Concerto No. 3, performed by pianist Van Cliburn and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Fritz Reiner (in Schumann) and Walter Hendl (in Prokofiev) conducting (RCA Victor 09026-62691).

The music of Robert Schumann is perhaps the most difficult in the standard repertory. It's ferociously difficult -- but never sounds as hard as it is -- and it's suffused with feeling and fantasy that only the most imaginative and sensitive interpreters can capture.

Much of the solo writing, for example, is awkward for cellists to play. Unlike Dvorak, who utilized the brilliant, easy-to-project upper register of the instrument in his famous Concerto in B Minor, Schumann emphasized the lower strings. This not only makes it difficult for the soloist to be heard over the orchestra, but also makes the instrument, in all but the most talented hands, sound as if it is groaning.

Then there is the problem of interpretation. The concerto is pervaded by a mournful quality; much of it is in the minor key, and even the major portions of the great slow movement have a feeling of the minor tonality.

Only a great cellist can convey the lyricism of this music as Starker does. Now 72, he still possesses much of the accomplished finger and bow work, as well as exactitude of pitch, that brought him to fame more than 40 years ago. This is the cellist's third recording of the Schumann -- earlier ones on EMI and Mercury are still available -- but he returned to the microphones with it after a 30-year absence. This performance has even greater conviction than the earlier ones and, in the slow movement especially, a penetratingly elegiac outlook that matches the elegance of the conception.

Why Hindemith's 1940 Cello Concerto has been so neglected -- there are only three recordings in the current catalog -- is anyone's guess. It was composed for Gregor Piatigorsky -- who championed it with success -- and it sounds like it, too: The concerto has the qualities of warmth, expansiveness and drama that also characterized Piatigorsky's playing. Starker's exhilarating performance is now the best available.

Although Schumann's Piano Concerto in A Minor is among the most popular ever written, it is almost as difficult to interpret as the cello concerto. No other piano concerto is less concerned with virtuosity per se, yet it requires a virtuoso who happens to be a profound interpreter. Of the more than 75 recorded performances available, surprisingly few are genuinely distinguished. These two recordings join the successful ones.

The Cliburn-Reiner performance is a reissue from 1960, when the pianist was at the height of his precarious powers and when he was working with the only conductor who seemed capable of driving him to do his best. Cliburn's Schumann has been released on CD before -- coupled with MacDowell's Concerto No. 2 -- but this new release is part of RCA's "Living Stereo" series, which painstakingly tries to reproduce the full frequency response and dynamic range of the original LP issues. Cliburn's playing is poetic and sensitive, and he maintains this singing quality at the same time that his wonderful fingers spin out inhumanly even scales. The Prokofiev performance, in which Cliburn is partnered by Walter Hendl, misses the acerbity against which the composer balanced his lyricism.

Red-blooded pianist

Grimaud's view of the Schumann concerto is quite different from Cliburn's. The young Frenchwoman's playing has more of what one could have safely characterized 30 years ago as virility. Her performance has an impulsive, red-blooded quality reminiscent of Arthur Rubinstein's performances in the '30s, '40s and early '50s. Her version of the Strauss "Burleske" also defies expectations.

From a pianist with so much temperament, one would have assumed to hear an explosively brilliant interpretation that suggested the "Burleske's" successors in the concertos of Bela Bartok. But, as the youthful Strauss was himself, Grimaud is a devoted Brahmsian, and her interpretation, slower and more lyrical than most, has a Brahmslike warmth not usually associated with so coruscating a work.

Zinman's accompaniment is characteristically attentive and supportive. What does surprise the listener, however, is that the recorded sound, somewhat too brilliantly lighted and harsh, is not as good as that of the Cliburn-Reiner disc recorded 35 years earlier.

Hear the music

To hear Janos Starker perform the slow movement of Robert Schumann's Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, 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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