Regular readers of this site know that the trio consisting of violinist Isabelle Faust, cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, and pianist Alexander Melnikov have been involved with a “trilogy projected” concerned with both the piano trios and concertos of Robert Schumann. When compared with his catalog taken as a whole, Schumann’s chamber music is relatively modest. He composed only three piano trios, two in 1847 (Opus 63 in D minor and Opus 80 in F major) and one in 1851 (Opus 110 in G minor). Curiously, he also wrote only three string quartets (in A minor, F major, and A major all collected as his Opus 41 in 1842) and three violin sonatas, two in 1851 (Opus 105 in A minor and Opus 121 in D minor) and the last, not published at the time of its composition, in 1853 (WoO 27 in A minor).
Similarly, Schumann wrote only three concertos, relatively in the same time frame; and they happen to be for the instruments that constitute a piano trio. The Opus 54 piano concerto in A minor, definitely the best known of the three, was composed in 1845. This was followed by the Opus 129 cello concerto in A minor, composed in 1850 and championed by several cellists, even though it was never played in Schumann’s lifetime. Even more neglected, however, was the WoO 23 violin concerto in D minor, composed in 1853 and, again, not published at the time of its composition.
Faust, Queyras, and Melnikov realized their “trilogy project” through the recording label they all share, harmonia mundi. The plan was to release three albums, each of which coupled a concerto with a piano trio. The trios were released in reverse chronological order. Thus the first release presented the Opus 110 trio, coupling it with the WoO 23 violin concerto, both relatively late compositions. This was followed, on the second release, by the Opus 80 trio; but it was coupled with the earliest of the concertos, Opus 45, Nevertheless, the dates of these two compositions were, again, relatively close. Last Friday harmonia mundi released the final album, coupling the Opus 63 trio with the Opus 129 cello concerto.
The ensemble for all concerto performances was the Freiburger Barockorchester conducted by Pablo Heras-Casado. In addition, all three instrumentalists used historical instruments. Indeed, Melnikov used one instrument for his trio performances (an 1847 instrument made by Johann Baptist Streicher) and another for the concerto recording (made in 1837 by Sébastian Érard’s company six years after his death). The latter was an instrument that was being played (but not by Schumann) when Opus 54 was composed, while the Streicher instrument is contemporary with the first two of the three trios.
“Resource planning” was thus a significant element in the realization of the entire “trilogy project;” and the results definitely seem to have been worth the preparatory effort. This is particularly the case with the Érard instrument, which brought a transparency to Schumann’s approaches to both counterpoint and the voicing of harmonic progressions. There are any number of details that get lost in the “fog of reverberation” associated with a more modern instrument, whose physical strength also inevitably tempts the pianist to come down with heavier hands than Schumann could possibly have anticipated. The Streicher instrument, on the other hand, has a similarly limited dynamic range that perfectly complements the dynamic levels of the other two instruments, Faust’s 1704 “Sleeping Beauty” Stradivarius and Queyras’ 1696 instrument made by Gioffredo Cappa.
Now that the project has been completed, it is worth noting that there is much to be gained from listening to it in its entirety. Through the trios one can appreciate the underlying work practices through which chamber music was being played in the middle of the nineteenth century. The contrast with the experience of listening to modern instruments is easily recognized, and the resulting sonorities provide a new window on the logic behind Schumann’s approach to composition. Where the concertos are concerned, this is most evident in the piano concerto; but that is just because that is the concerto that gets the most exposure. Nevertheless, here, too, the recordings provide the attentive listener with an informative window on Schumann’s work practices, a window through which one may then also become better informed about the related practices of his contemporaries.