31 May 2024

P.R. Jenkins

Spotlight Schumann: The piano concerto

Robert Schumann’s op 54 was the piano concerto Karajan performed most often – 32 times.

Robert Schumann’s op 54 was the piano concerto Karajan performed most often – 32 times. The pianists he worked with on this particular concerto are an illustrious who-is-who of 20th century piano playing, ranging from Alfred Cortot – who finished his piano studies when Clara Schumann was still alive – to Krystian Zimerman, who is one of the finest pianists in classical music today. It began with Karajan joining Ralph Lawton at the piano and the Mozarteum Orchestra in Salzburg in 1931. In his Aachen years, he performed the Schumann with the doyen of romantic piano playing, Alfred Cortot, and the refined Ukrainian pianist Lubka Kolessa.

Four of the fifteen concerts with the Staatskapelle Berlin in 1944 had the concerto on its programme and featured two important German pianists, Wilhelm Kempff and Walter Gieseking with whom he recorded it in 1953. The Schumann was also part of the momentous concert on 11 April 1948. It was the first-ever concert of Karajan and the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. Dinu Lipatti played the solo part. The day before, they had made a record at Abbey Road which is still in the catalogue and remains a rare document of Lipatti’s art. Peter Uehling wrote:

“The interpretation still has cult status. It is astonishing how they managed to play a work that is regarded as a typical romantic concerto in an almost classical way without deforming it or neglecting its expression. […] The approach is very modern and cosmopolitan by avoiding a specific German ‘Innerlichkeit’. The composers individual tone appears particularly in the subtle shape of details.”

Two years later, Karajan performed for the only time with Friedrich Gulda. The collaboration wasn’t continued. Talking to Pierre Fournier, Karajan hinted at a serious disgruntlement with the brilliant and self-confident Viennese pianist. According to Richard Osborne it was the same with Claudio Arrau performing the Schumann at the Edinburgh Festival in 1954. As chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Karajan performed with Hans Richter-Haaser (1958/1959), Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1965) and Christoph Eschenbach (1970). The concerts with Eschenbach and with Maurizio Pollini and the Vienna Philharmonic in Salzburg (1974) were recorded for broadcast. Karajan’s last studio recording (1982) and his seven last performances between 1981 and 1985 took place exclusively with Krystian Zimerman.

Peter Uehling: “Karajan. Eine Biographie” Rowohlt, Reinbek bei Hamburg. 2006

Richard Osborne: “Karajan. A Life in Music” Chatto & Windus, London. 1998

Stay Informed