Saturday, November 13, 2004


It's been a good year for me work-wise, though I touch every piece of wood in sight as I write this. First, I'm back in a national paper (Indy) on a regular basis after a break of several years since Guardian days. Now I'm back reviewing CDs for BBC Music Magazine after a break of around 2 years, following the magazine's recent office move and staff changes. As a freelancer, one is extremely dependent on the personal taste of whoever happens to be in charge at the editorial level - it's a rare blessing when this actually works for one, instead of against!

They've sent me a CD of Schumann piano music, the Etudes Symphonique and the Fantasie Op.17, and I have to write a 'benchmark' review - ie, compare this one to 'the best recording currently available'. Apart from the obvious thought - omygod, not another disc of Schumann, can't he do something more original? - this presents the dilemma that there are so many fine recordings of these piece already that picking 'the best' is an uncomfortable task. For Schumann generally, I tend to gravitate to ancient jobs like Cortot - I don't believe anybody has ever played this music with such profound understanding as he did. But given crackles and wrong notes, this may not qualify as 'the best' for such an occasion. For the Fantasie, arch-rival Gramophone gives Richter as their Recommended Recording - but then, they also recommend Bostridge in Dichterliebe, which I find very hard to swallow (come on, guys, haven't you ever heard Fischer-Dieskau accompanied by Eschenbach?), so I'm dubious about trusting this.

It's interesting to see that on the list that responds to my 'Schumann Etudes Symphoniques' search (total: 74 recordings), sorted according to best-sellers, dead pianists feature as much, if not more than, living ones. Incredibly, Gieseking seems to be their No.1 seller. Then Pletnev, Ashkenazy and, good heavens, Moiseiwitsch; followed by Wilhelm Kempff and Cortot before Pogorelich with his pretty-boy photo from decades back. And so it goes on.

So, do I plump for personal favourite Cortot or should I plough through a dozen Good Contemporary Bets (Pletnev is just too idiosyncratic for me, by the way) before finding someone to compare this new, unfortunate, unsuspecting pianist to? Well, I have to give a concert myself tomorrow... so maybe I'll worry about it once that's over... Meanwhile, anybody got any more personal top choices for CDs of these pieces?