Jonathan Biss plays Schumann so naturally that he can sound like a throwback to an earlier age. His tender, rather inward playing dominates this new Schumann Piano Quintet. The piece is dominated by the piano - frequently the string part doubles the keyboard or supports it harmonically, and Biss has no trouble carrying the interpretation. I wish the elias quartet were stronger. They play cleanly and are recorded almost clinically, revealing some disagreeable tone, such as the viola's in the slow movement. In this movement their detached phrasing chops up the flow of the lovely theme - this sort of clear-eyed playing seems to be critically popular right now, but Biss's tender, soulful style doesn't really match it very well. Overall, the Schumann performance could be grander and more passionate, but on its own terms it's impressive.
His rounded mellowness is just as evident in the Dvorak Piano Quintet, and is much appreciated. This score is built on a larger framework than the Schumann - it comes closer to Brahms's almost symphonic Quintet in F minor - so one expects a strong union of piano and strings, with intense dramatic contrasts and stamping rhythms where called for. Here, the spirit is willing, but on my audio system the Elias sound scratchy; there's almost no swelling passion. Richter and the Borodin Qt. come to mind as exemplars of the kind of grand heartfelt approach that seems ideal.
The Dvorak reaches a high point in the haunting second movement Dumka, where Biss's playing is irresistible in every regard but especially in his phrasing or the captivating melody. My attention was held every bar. The Elias are sweeter and more blended here, too. Each line is brought out with utter clarity in the x-ray sound. The Scherzo is taken in a quick, light fashion so that it scampers rather than rollicks, an enjoyable change and one that allows Biss's pianism to sparkle. The tricky finale is handled just as lightly, but as before my enjoyment came primarily from Biss. He was marked out for special praise as a young pianist with an old musical soul, and this recording puts him in a lineage I much admire.
It would be unfair to downgrade this CD on the basis of my audio setup, but prospective buyers might want to test the sound first.