Notes and Editorial Reviews
Piano Sonata No. 2 in g
Angela Hewitt (pn)
HYPERION 67780 (75:32)
This is Angela Hewitt’s second installment in what appears to be an ongoing project to record Schumann’s complete works for solo piano. I’m a big Hewitt fan, as previous reviews of her Beethoven piano sonatas and cello sonatas with Müller-Schott will attest. However, reviewing her prior Schumann release in
31:5—that CD contained the composer’s Sonata No. 1 in F?-Minor—I found that her highly structured approach worked less well in Schumann’s freer fantasy-like style of writing than did the more expressive and spontaneous performances by Murray Perahia. As I said then, “Hewitt doesn’t perform a Pollini-like autopsy on Schumann, but my sense is that she tries to impose a bit too much control on music that needs to be set free in order to soar.”
In fairness, some of the fault may be attributed to the composer, at least insofar as his sonatas are concerned. Most of his works for solo piano (other than the sonatas) are miniatures stitched together to create larger works. These would include, in order of composition,
1829–31 op. 2
1834 op. 13
1834–35 op. 9
1837 op. 6
1837 op. 12
1838 op. 15
1838 op. 16
Faschingsschwank aus Wien
1839 op. 26
1832–45 op. 124
Album for the Young
1848 op. 68
1836–49 op. 99
1848–49 op. 82
Obviously, I haven’t named every solo piano piece Schumann wrote, mainly his best-known and most popular ones, but I think it’s pretty clear from this list that as a composer for solo keyboard Schumann was a miniaturist sketching epigrammatic character pieces and pictorial vignettes. It will also be noted that with the exception of the last four works, everything comes fairly early, having been completed before 1840 and published with an opus number no higher than 26. However, even major portions of two of these last four listed,
, are closer to their pre-1840 start dates than they are to their post-1840 finish dates. See below under
for an explanation.
If the G-Minor Sonata (No. 2) on this disc were to be shoehorned into the above list, it would have to span several entries; having been begun in 1833, prior to the
, it wasn’t completed until 1838, around the same time as
, and was published as op. 22. Clara didn’t care much for the last movement, which she found difficult to play, and suggested to Robert that the audience might find it difficult to listen to. Taking her advice, he wrote a new finale.
The F?-Minor Sonata (No. 1), completed in 1835 and published as op. 11, also falls into the early group. The Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, op. 14, has a somewhat complicated history spanning some 17 years. It began as a concerto in five movements without orchestra which almost surely predated the Sonata No. 2 and may have even predated the Sonata No. 1. By the time it was published in 1836, a year after the first sonata but two years before the second, it had been reduced to three movements but still bore the title “concerto without orchestra.” It wasn’t until 1853 that Schumann revised the work and it was republished as the Sonata No. 3. Six more years would pass (Schumann was now dead) before Brahms played the work in public for the first time, in 1862. The point to all of this is that all three of Schumann’s piano sonatas—revisions to No. 3 notwithstanding—are of approximately the same vintage as the early, pre-1840 works listed above, their musical material cut from much the same cloth.
The composer’s entry into the domain of large-scale, non-representational musical forms—i.e., his three concertos for piano, cello, and violin; his masterly chamber works (the three string quartets, the piano quartet and quintet, the three piano trios, and the three violin sonatas); and the four symphonies—occurred post his 1840 outpouring of pocket-sized piano portraits blown up to poster size by adding more and more pixels.
on this disc are examples of this approach. Of an original 30 individual miniatures Schumann penned for his musical reflections on childhood, only 13 made it into the final version of
. What happened to the unused movements? Surprise, surprise; they ended up in
, which not only reinforces the argument that so much of Schumann’s solo piano music is of an early vintage, but also that the pieces within these collections are like so many strangers on a bus that exit one vehicle and transfer to another.
, which contains some of Schumann’s most stunningly beautiful keyboard writing, is, from the viewpoint of orderliness and logical progression, even more loosely sewn together than
. At least the latter hangs on the thread of a storybook theme if not a musical one, but the 18 numbers that constitute
are a jumble of unrelated ideas that come spilling out as if from one who is inebriated. Even Schumann himself confided to Clara that the work was a
(“wedding eve”) of broken crockery. The broken pieces consist of (1) the Davidsbünd, Schumann’s imaginary friends and brotherhood of artists who combat the shallow nature of contemporary culture; (2) musical love letters to Clara; and (3) confrontations between the composer’s Apollonian-Dionysian alter egos, Florestan and Eusebius. If you attempt to impose some logic on this by trying to figure out what it all means, you’ll miss the breathtaking beauty of the music; so just listen and don’t worry about what may be early manifestations of Schumann’s mental deterioration.
Critical opinion seems more or less unanimous that the G-Minor Sonata is Schumann’s most successful of his three efforts in the medium. Certainly it’s the best-organized and well structured. Mention has been made, though, of the composer’s bizarre tempo indications for the first movement, which call upon the pianist to play
So rasch wie möglich
(“as fast as possible”), then in the coda,
(“faster”), and in the final measures,
(“still faster”). Does anyone take this literally? If so, by the end he or she would theoretically be playing twice as fast as possible.
This bit of science fiction aside, Hewitt benefits from Schumann’s iron-grip on his material; it plays to her classical orientation and strengths. This is one of the best readings of the sonata I’ve heard; not as feverish and perfervid perhaps as Martha Argerich, but more responsive, I think, to Schumann’s rapidly shifting emotional moods than Marc-André Hamelin on Hyperion’s own competing recording. Hewitt is quite chameleon-like in her ability to alter the color of her tone through articulation and dynamic contrast, turning on a dime from frighteningly menacing to consolingly embracing. And her piano, which I assume is her favored Fazioli (the notes don’t say), is captured in its full magnificence by Hyperion’s engineering team.
As for the
, Hewitt plays them beautifully; but once again, as in her previous Schumann release, I sense just a slight lack of the poetic spontaneity that lies at the heart of these works and that seems to me to be so perfectly realized by Perahia in the
and both Ashkenazy and Radu Lupu in
. As I compare Hewitt to the others in these two scores, to me, she sounds ever so slightly studied.
Still, this is very beautiful playing and a fantastic recording to which I have no hesitation extending a hearty welcome.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Stunned by Angela Hewitt’s
Bach collection which was released in one satisfyingly chunky box in 2010, you might also have had your anticipatory senses alerted by a few excerpts from the
Davidsbündlertänze which were part of the
Not Bach sampler tucked into the bottom of the set. This beautifully recorded programme of Schumann lives up to expectations. Hewitt’s sensitivity of touch and vivid sense of colour and imagination brings these pieces vibrantly, if not entirely un-controversially, to life.
Kinderszenen will be perhaps the most familiar of the works in this recital, certainly as one of the most popular of Schumann’s piano works, and also as the kinds of pieces many of us will have attempted to learn as part of the educational literature. As you can imagine, Hewitt raises the status of these pieces way beyond the stuff of early piano lessons, and part of her skill in communicating in this music is in realising the poetic content and intention in and behind Schumann’s notes. Without in any way suggesting that this has failed, there are elements in the playing which may take a little getting used to, or with which you may disagree entirely. Schumann’s scores are clear and unambiguous on one level, but on another they leave a great deal to the interpretative powers of the pianist. They are not over-laden with expression markings or
ritenuti, so that the pianist has a great deal of freedom, but also a huge responsibility. Angela Hewitt’s decisions are a natural response to both the notes as they stand, and partly indicated by the depth of study she has clearly made of the music, shown in her extensive and nicely written booklet notes. The give and take of her
rubati are well balanced, so that the forward leaning moments in the first
Von fremden Ländern und Menschen are given release in the pulling back in tempo at the end of each phrase. The more march-like or dancing pieces are superbly contrasted, but the extremes are to be found in the rather massive fermatas in a piece such as
Träumerei, with which I can imagine people having one or two problems. Radu Lupu in his Decca recording shows how a similar depth of expressive message can be communicated with a good deal less pulling around. The complete honesty of expression and beauty of tone and touch in Hewitt’s playing win me over every time, but there are occasions where she pushes the boundaries pretty much to the limits of cohesion.
One thing where Hewitt and both Clara Schumann and I amicably part company is in our opinion of Schumann’s
Carnaval, of which Hewitt writes, “I would rather play the [
Davidsbündlertänze]… ten times than hear
Carnaval once.” The only reason I bring this up is as part of the programme on the comparison disc I’ve been using; that of Alessandra Ammara on the Arts label, which I enjoyed immensely. Ammara’s timings are almost invariably a little longer than Hewitt’s, the latter tending to have a more urgent, more high-tensile view of the swifter pieces such as the opening
Lebhaft and the first of the two marked
Mit Humor. The forward-darting aspect of Hewitt’s
rubato is to my mind less appealing in something like
Ungeduldig, where the variation in tempo seems to take over from the significance of the notes, though I have to admit she certainly does sound more ‘impatient’ than Ammara. The song-like melodies of the lyrical movements are a sheer delight, though my appreciation remains in the way Ammara brings out the sudden little changes in character within the music in little pieces like
Einfach, where the dancing nature of the second half of the phrase comes more to the fore. Hewitt integrates more here, seeing that particular phrase as a single entity than one with a schizophrenic double character all of its own. In this way the subtle differences in fragrance between the two pianists remain distinct, while they are absolute equals in terms of absolute quality. I like for instance the way Ammara holds back the drama of
Sehr rasch, allowing the narrative to unfold and grow with a sense of organic wildness, but from roots deep under the soil. Hewitt arcs upwards from a position more of lightness and transparency, the lower notes given marginally less weight and either a sharper articulation or a touch less length. These are all very fractional differences of approach and I don’t really want to give the impression I prefer the one over the other. It may seem an easy way to duck out of making choices, but the truth is I just enjoy the fascinating little technical angles and alternative brushstrokes of expression between these recordings and revel in being able to enjoy Schumann’s endlessly fascinating possibilities in both.
Piano Sonata No.2 in G minor follows the writer’s rule, ‘start with an avalanche and go on from there.’ Angela Hewitt grips us from the start with the “great sweep and passion typically combining dramatic urgency with moments of rapt tenderness.” This is certainly a performance which wrings everything imaginable from the score. Relatively compact, the piece has a sublime
Andantino second movement whose lyrical beauty Hewitt expresses with absolute refinement and a sense of tender restraint which touches the soul. Those extremes of drama can be almost brutal, and we are shaken by the throat as the calls of the
Scherzo bring us out of our reverie from the previous movement. The finale, Schumann’s second attempt, the first being considered too difficult by Clara and including her musical motto in the second subject, reflects the restless motion of the accompanying figure in the first movement with octaves which fly through the air like swallows chasing insects.
Let’s be honest, there is no shortage of Schumann piano music in the recorded catalogues. Of this programme the
Piano Sonata No.2 is the least frequently recorded, but Angela Hewitt is up against competition from an extensive list of big names. Distinctive and touchingly beautiful as it is, the cover painting ‘Sister Emilie Sleeping’ by Adolph von Menzel conjures contents of soporific effect, and nothing could be further from the truth. Angela Hewitt has a magical touch on her preferred Fazioli instrument and this recording is genuinely full of those ‘moments of dramatic urgency and rapt tenderness’. Fans and newcomers to Hewitt’s playing alike will find much to admire and enjoy here, now and for a long, long time to come.
-- Dominy Clements, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Davidsbündlertänze for Piano, Op. 6 by Robert Schumann
Angela Hewitt (Piano)
Written: 1837; Germany
Kinderszenen, Op. 15 by Robert Schumann
Angela Hewitt (Piano)
Written: 1838; Germany
Sonata for Piano no 2 in G minor, Op. 22 by Robert Schumann
Angela Hewitt (Piano)
Written: 1833-1838; Germany
Featured Sound Samples
Kinderszenen: No 10: Fast zu ernst
Davidsbündlertänze: No 5: Einfach
Piano Sonata no 2: I. So rasch wie möglich
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