Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Gabriel Schwabe’s Schumann Album on Naxos

courtesy of Naxos of America

Almost exactly a month ago Naxos released an album showcasing performances by cellist Gabriel Schwabe. The recording consists entirely of compositions by Robert Schumann, the major selection being the single-movement Opus 129 concerto in A minor. Schwabe performs with the Royal Northern Sinfonia conducted by Lars Vogt. The remainder of the album is devoted to chamber music performed with pianist Nicholas Rimmer.

Among those five chamber music selections, only one seems to have been written explicitly for cello and piano. That one is the Opus 102 entitled Stücke im Volkston (pieces in folk style), a set of five relatively short pieces. Two of them are cello versions of compositions written for another solo instrument, the horn in the case of the Opus 70 coupling of Adagio and Allegro movements and the clarinet in the case of the three Opus 73 “fantasy” pieces. For remaining two pieces, Schwabe prepared his own cello arrangements. One of these is the Opus 94 set of three “romances” for oboe and piano. The other is the Intermezzo movement that Schumann contributed to the so-called “F-A-E” sonata, a joint project that Schumann shared with his pupil Albert Dietrich and Johannes Brahms to prepare a sonata as a special gift to the violinist Joseph Joachim.

All of the performances on the album offer readings of the text that are never anything less than technically capable. However, things are not always as convincing when one takes rhetoric into account. This is most evident in Opus 102, whose tempo specification (sic) for the first of the five pieces is “Mit Humor.” It is not hard to get the joke in this piece, where every playful gesture in the upper register is dismissed with a gruff response in the lower. There is a temptation to overplay that gruff element; but, sadly, Schwabe’s pendulum swings too far in the opposite direction, as if all that mattered were the fingering challenges behind bouncing back and forth across the distance between the two registers.

Where the concerto is concerned, I must confess that I was more curious as to how Vogt would fare as a conductor, since, until this recording was released, I knew him only as a pianist. On the whole I was impressed. Schumann was not always at the top of his game in managing orchestral resources; but Vogt provided a well-balanced account of the accompaniment for the solo cello part. One might almost say that his experience in accompanying chamber music at the piano has prepared him more than adequately to deal with the challenges of orchestral accompaniment. Nevertheless, it is hard to tell how much of that balance was a product of Vogt’s in-the-moment judgment and how much came from the mixing skills of Stephen Schmidt and his recording team. Still, this album left me looking forward to opportunities to experience Vogt’s work as a conductor, particularly in a concert setting.

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