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Schumann: Geistervariationen / Andras Schiff

Release Date: 10/18/2011 
Label:  Ecm   Catalog #: 001611502  
Composer:  Robert Schumann
Performer:  András Schiff
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SCHUMANN Papillons. Piano Sonata No. 1. Kinderszenen. Fantasy in C. Waldszenen. Theme and Variations in E?, “Geister.” Fantasy in C: 3rd movement (final version András Schiff (pn) ECM 754 (2 CDs: 138:36)

András Schiff has proved a perplexing artist Read more to me over the years; I cannot abide his Decca Schubert series even though this is one of the ways he made his early mark on the industry. But his Beethoven, which many vilified, I find refreshingly sincere and quite brilliant in every respect. Hence, when this album arrived at my door I really did not know what to expect. Would we have more Beethovenian illumination or dour, all-too-careful Schubert inhabiting the uninhibited world of Robert Schumann?

A little of both, as it turns out. This is not a demonstration of Schumannesque unbridled passion. Far from it—some of the pieces are downright shackled, as if putting the composer in some sort of musical chastity belt. Others are fairly loose and vigorous, though I’ll wager none will top the passion-meter of your favorite artists. One thing is very evident: Schiff presents us with that rare pianism that examines each note, melody, phrase, and harmony in a clear and concise manner that always makes sense of the whole. In other words, you can always be sure that no matter what he does, it will work within his own set constraints. His elegant, restrained style serves a work like Papillons very well. This quasi-Viennese, careful mélange of back-and-forth fluttering of contrasts and moods would set the stage for many of Schumann’s compositions, and Schiff knows it is mandatory to properly present this earliest of the composer’s great piano works in the best possible light. Many artists bomb out completely in this piece, but Schiff’s opening salvo proves one of the best performances in this set.

Likewise the sonata, which has a richness and contrasting splendor that many pianists miss. This work was created at the time when Schumann was forbidden to openly exercise his love for Clara, and poured his heart out into the piece, from which Clara later used several themes in her own music. Schumann had sonatas on the mind at this point, the first being written almost concomitantly with the second, and all three, including the Fantasy in C if one considers it a sonata, were done in a six-year period. Schiff finds just the right touch here, not overdoing the excesses already built into the music, and the results are quite ingratiating. The Kinderszenen , those reflections of older age upon the years of childhood, are without question the most beloved and most-played of all of Schumann’s works, and as such might deserve the most scrutiny. Horowitz loved them and gave us a recording that is aural poetry. But Schiff insists on giving the piece a bath first, and the cleanliness and fresh smell that result enable us to appreciate the piece anew, the clarity of his lines offering a startling take on a work we thought we knew so well.

So the first disc is an enormous success on all counts. On the second we reach a few potholes, though none I think enough to flatten our listening tires. The Fantasy in C, one of the single greatest pieces of the Romantic era, suffers just a bit from over-consideration. The beginning starts off well enough, clean as usual, and wonderfully recorded in ECM’s generally superb sound. But sometimes I feel that Schiff’s innate instincts are to rein in the more fantastic elements of the score for the sake of the structural ones. I don’t hear enough of the dreamy, the otherworldly that so makes this work of all Schumann’s piano music so beloved. Interestingly enough, where most pianists meet their Waterloo, Schiff succeeds, mostly, in the last movement, with excellent tempos and no exaggerations that so plagued the recent Uchida recording. He really does have it all just about right, but then, for some reasons that he makes clear in the notes but ultimately just derive from personal preference, he chooses Schumann’s more elaborate early ending to the third movement instead of the one that got revised and ultimately published. He finds it more convincing, but I must say I think him dead wrong. Schumann knew that after such a miracle as the third movement all that was needed was to take us to the end quickly, rhapsodically, and quietly in order to allow reflection on what has just passed. The early version adds too many points of emphasis, as if saying, “OK, now we are finishing—get it?” It simply doesn’t work, and as in most instances of consecutive thoughts in Schumann’s music, his last ones are usually the best. Schiff does give us the published version at the very end of this disc, albeit divorced from the main performance, not exactly a satisfying way to do it.

Waldszenen similarly feels overly cautious to me in many ways. Granted, this is a way different animal in the Schumann zoo, picturesque and colorful in a quite direct manner that is only hinted at and never fully embraced in his other pieces. They are perhaps the most poetic pieces in the Schumann canon next to the Kinderszenen. As such it does make a certain amount of sense that Schiff would approach them in the same manner. But Forest Scenes is a little more unbuttoned in concept, and sometimes I think he keeps his emotions too strongly in check when in fact there was no more emotional activity for any Romantic-era composer than strolling through the woods. Nonetheless, this is a successful reading as Schiff knows how to present poetry in sound, carefully considering his touch in a piece like “Lonely Flowers” or equally adept in phrasing the final “Farewell.”

Some see in the “Ghost” Variations, Schumann’s final work, an issue of his madness. It is true that he thought that spirits were dictating the themes to him, when in fact they were products of his own subconscious, as the Second String Quartet will prove, and it is true that in the midst of this piece he tried his abortive suicide attempt. But he picked up where he left off afterward, and in truth this piece is fully worthy of the last efforts of the great composer, calming, steady, and really some of the sanest music he ever penned! It is underappreciated, but if recordings of this quality keep coming—and check the Fanfare Archive for a few more—its comeback will be assured as it definitely deserves.

All in all this is a most delightful issue by one of the foremost pianists performing today.

FANFARE: Steven E. Ritter
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Works on This Recording

Variations for Piano on an original theme "Geisterthema" by Robert Schumann
Performer:  András Schiff (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1854; Germany 
Waldszenen, Op. 82 by Robert Schumann
Performer:  András Schiff (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1848-1849; Germany 
Sonata for Piano no 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 11 by Robert Schumann
Performer:  András Schiff (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1832-1835; Germany 
Phantasie for Piano in C major, Op. 17 by Robert Schumann
Performer:  András Schiff (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1836-1838; Germany 
Papillons, Op. 2 by Robert Schumann
Performer:  András Schiff (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1829-1831; Germany 
Kinderszenen, Op. 15 by Robert Schumann
Performer:  András Schiff (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1838; Germany 

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