There's no shame in being a very fine pianist, but Maria Joao Pires went through a period, around the time that this Schumann CD was released in 2000, when critics puffed up her reputation. We were asked to believe that her Schubert and Chopin was a revelation. This risked serious deflation, yet for a time if you noticed that she wasn't Pollini or Rubinstein, you were committing critical heresy. Here we begin with a Schumann concerto that is too sensitive for its own good. Abetted by lovely sounding but lackadaisical accompaniments from Abbado, Pires plays beautifully from bar to bar but with not enough force. Going pit-a-pat through three movements, never finding a strong climax in any of them, doesn't add up to a satisfying performance. So half the program is a washout.
It's a different story when Pires is the pianist in an all-star Piano Quintet that features Augustin Dumany (her regular duet partner in violin sonatas), Renaud Capucon, and Jian Wang. Their reading is satisfying despite Pires's pit-a-pat tendencies because the ensemble as a whole offers such intense, committed music-making. I like this performance much better than the Emersons, also on DG, which crunches through the work with stainless-steel efficiency. When Martha Argerich leads this work, it is even more passionate and romantic, reminding me of the glory days of chamber music with Rudolf Serkin and Pablo Casals. A strong enough reminder that even with half a loaf, this is a Schumann Piano Quintet that justifies the whole album. I can't think of a better one, Argerich excepted, in quite a while. As for the one I couldn't live without, that would be the Borodin Qt. with an incandescent Sviatoslav Richter.