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Schumann: Humoreske Op. 20, Fantasiestucke Op. 12 / Emanuel Ax

Release Date: 10/25/2011 
Label:  Newton Classics   Catalog #: 8802084  
Composer:  Robert Schumann
Performer:  Emanuel Ax
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SCHUMANN Humoreske. Fantasiestücke Emanuel Ax (pn) NEWTON 8802084 (55: 29)

Licensed from RCA, this is a 1991 recording I’d have expected to see selling at a budget price on Newton’s reissue label. Instead, as of this writing in mid-December 2011, it’s listed at ArkivMusic, alongside the still-available original RCA, for exactly the same midline price of $12.99 and, even screwier, at Amazon for $13.44, 45 cents more than the RCA original. I give up!

Schumann’s Read more Humoreske and Fantasiestücke are among the composer’s many beloved pieces for solo piano and certainly not in want of fine recordings. But I’m a longtime Emanuel Ax admirer, having been especially impressed by his Brahms, a composer in whose solo keyboard and chamber works the pianist has demonstrated his muscular power and mastery of the music’s imposing architectural scale.

Schumann is different. Mainly a miniaturist in his solo piano works, he creates larger forms by stringing together sequences of poetic sketches or pièces caracteristiques . Clearly, that’s the case with the eight numbers that make up the Fantasy Pieces of op. 12, inspired by a series of novellas by E. T. A. Hoffmann. The literary narratives give Schumann the opportunity to compose a set of short pieces that both contrast and combine his lyrical, poetic dreamer, Eusebius, with his unbridled passionate character, Florestan.

The plural title, Fantasiestücke , tells us to expect a work made up of separate pieces. Not so the singular-titled Humoreske , which David Threasher describes in his program note as “more ‘humors’ than ‘humor’”; in keeping with Schumann’s typical approach, Humoreske , too, is a multimovement mélange of six mostly short episodes that exhibit rapid and dramatic mood swings between the melancholic and the excitable. Not a few Schumann scholars and critics have rated Humoreske one of the composer’s lesser achievements, some going as far as to suggest that its extremes of “laughing and weeping” anticipate the composer’s future bipolar disorder.

Recent inroads into Schumann by Angela Hewitt have been welcome, as is everything she does, but I find myself missing a degree of flexibility and spontaneity in her readings that seem to me to be a bit more expressively communicated by Murray Perahia in his Schumann recordings for Sony. Ax possesses similar abilities to Perahia in his ability to shift colors, chameleon-like, in response to the music’s ever-changing moods, and to make the contrasts between the most intimate poetics and the most explosive dramatics sound as if extemporized.

This is beautifully played Schumann and in a recording that need make no apology for its age. More recent releases of this repertoire may enjoy a slight edge in state-of-the-art sound, but none that I’ve heard are any more musically satisfying than this one.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Humoreske for Piano in B flat major, Op. 20 by Robert Schumann
Performer:  Emanuel Ax (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1838; Germany 
Date of Recording: 10/1981 
Venue:  RCA Studio A, New York 
Phantasiestücke (8) for Piano, Op. 12 by Robert Schumann
Performer:  Emanuel Ax (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1837; Germany 
Date of Recording: 10/1981 
Venue:  RCA Studio A, New York 

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