Sheng Cai’s Schumann

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 7

Sound Quality: 7

It takes some gumption to open a Schumann recital with the Toccata, especially if you’re a relatively young pianist staking turf alongside formidable catalog competition. Sheng Cai has energy to burn, but more in terms of nerves than power. Like Freddy Kempf, Cai enters with the main section a fraction of a beat late, dissipating the introduction’s syncopation, but keeps the thick textures under control throughout. His constricted dynamic range (possibly abetted by flinty, treble-oriented sonics) prevents his sudden acceleration in the coda from making dramatic impact.

The pianist seems more at home with the Humoreske’s yearning lyricism than in its swirling, headlong pages. The Arabeske gets off to a fluid, reposeful start, but loses momentum in Cai’s held-back and fragmented march interlude. I suspect that Cai has lived longer with Carnaval, simply because he lets go, takes chances, and more readily gives in to characterization.

He effectively conveys the Préambule’s unfettered party ambience, approaches Arlequin’s treacherous skips in a devil-may-care manner (he misses one, but no matter!), stretches Eusebius’ long lines almost to the breaking point, cheekily varies his voicing upon Papillons’ repeat, and seemingly waits forever to resume the Valse allemande after Paganini’s virtuosic interruption. And, yes, Cai plays the “forbidden” Sphinxes in the form of rumbling tremolos à la Rachmaninov’s (in)famous recording. Granted, Cai doesn’t challenge Nelson Freire’s fuller-bodied and sonically superior Decca interpretation, yet it is possible that the sonics do not do Cai’s sonority complete justice, so I’ll have to hear him in person before rendering a fair and balanced assessment of his artistry.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Toccata: Richter (DG), Humoreske: Lupu (Decca); Horowitz (RCA), Arabeske: Rubinstein (RCA, live Carnegie Hall version), Carnaval: Freire (Decca)

    Toccata Op. 7; Humoreske Op. 20; Arabeske Op. 18; Carnaval Op. 9

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