Maria João Pires “shapes and colours every phrase, and with immaculate taste, and she makes sure the phrases end as eloquently as they begin,” wrote Gramophone in 1974. “She conveys not just the details but the relevance of every note to the whole … Best of all, she communicates everything she has discovered about the music, and it is worth having.” This Portuguese pupil of Wilhelm Kempff, Pires was one of the artists who defined the Erato label in the 1970s and 1980s. This 5-CD box gathers together the recordings she made over the period from 1976 to 1985 and it reflects the consistent focus of her repertoire, with its special emphasis on Austro-German composers of the Classical and early-Romantic periods. Embracing solo works, piano duets and concertos, it contains works by Mozart, Schumann, Beethoven, but also by Bach and Chopin.
Apart from the Takacs Quartet, whose spirited, youthful account for Hungaroton/Conifer (4/88) of Schumann's three quartets was marred by inferior recorded sound, no single group has as yet given us either a complete Schumann or Brahms quartet cycle on CD—and certainly not a composite set of all six works. So all gratitude to the Melos Quartet for filling the gap. Their playing is immediately enjoyable for its warmth, its rhythmic impulse and its very positive directness. To try and place it in sharper perspective I've nevertheless taken the liberty of comparing the two discs with my cherished old LP set of the same works from the Quartetto Italiano (Philips—nla). For even though this has recently been deleted, I wouldn't be at all surprised to find it back in the shops, digitally remastered, before too long.
Deutsche Grammophon has another excellent Schumann Concerto in its catalog, the Pollini/Abbado, with the Berlin Philharmonic, coupled with a good but not great Schoenberg Piano Concerto. Not surprisingly, Pollini is more muscular and evenly balanced in the Schumann, even if he is, as usual, a bit straitlaced. Pires is always the sensitive and probing artist, or so it seems. Here, she is alert from the opening descending chords to the expressive potential in every bar. She puts much more thinking and feeling in her interpretation than Pollini and most others I've heard.