Notes and Editorial Reviews
AUTOUR DE ROBERT SCHUMANN: Songs of Early Light
Sylviane Deferne (pn)
DORON 5035 (75:34)
3 Preludes and Fugues,
Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann,
Piano Sonata in g.
This is one of the loveliest solo piano recitals to come my way in quite some time, even if it was recorded back in 1994 by Radio Canada and released on the CBC label. Obviously, if you already have it in its original form, I’m not going to recommend you repurchase it. But for those who may have missed it the first time around, this Doron reissue is definitely worth your attention. Mention should be made that the original CBC disc was reviewed by Peter J. Rabinowitz in
For starters, Deferne’s program has an agenda, if you will, its schema being built around the idea of presenting early works by composers who, early on, cozied up to Robert Schumann; in the case of his future wife, Clara, it would be hard to get much cozier. Moreover, there’s an intimate reciprocity among and between these pieces: Clara and Brahms both based their compositions on themes by Schumann; Ludwig Schunke dedicated his sonata to Schumann; and Schumann dedicated his Toccata to Schunke. If ever there was a mutual admiration society, this was it. But perhaps even more interesting is Deferne’s programming the seldom-heard Clara Schumann preludes and fugues and the almost never-heard sonata by Schunke, for which I find only one other current listing, on the Dynamic label by pianist Mario Patuzzi. Rabinowitz also reviewed the Patuzzi in 23:2 and found his reading nowhere near as mercurial as Deferne’s.On a list of shortest-lived composers, Ludwig Schunke (1810–34) would be near the top; he succumbed to tuberculosis two weeks short of his 24th birthday. For someone of so few years, Schunke covered a lot of ground. He trained in Paris under Kalkbrenner and Reicha, cultivated friendships with Berlioz and Thalberg, and then returned to Germany after completing his studies. In Stuttgart, he met Chopin, dedicating a Capriccio in C Minor to him after hearing the Polish composer perform his E-Minor Piano Concerto. Then, in rapid succession, Schunke moved to Vienna, Prague, Dresden, and finally Leipzig, which is where he happened to find himself Schumann’s next-door neighbor. Most of Schunke’s output was for solo piano, and the rest of his catalog, which contains a couple of chamber works, a couple of concerted orchestral pieces, and a number of songs, all include piano.
Sylviane Deferne’s self-authored program note gives pages of detailed background on each of the works on the disc, except for one glaring exception, the Schunke. All she gives us is its title and its date of composition, 1832. You’d think that a pianist who took the time and effort to learn a practically unknown piece of music would bother to learn something about it. But I really shouldn’t be too hard on her because I wasn’t able to turn up much of anything useful in the course of an Internet search, either. Schunke, it seems, is but a footnote to music history, which is a shame, because his “Grand Sonata” is grand indeed, ranging in style and expression, as Rabinowitz observed, from Schubert to Alkan.
The other rarity on the disc, though not as rare as the Schunke, is Clara Schumann’s Three Preludes and Fugues. I’d never heard them before, and they really blow me away. Clara’s bonafides as a composer suddenly have gone up several degrees in my estimation. The preludes are, like much of her music, emotive songs without words that Robert himself would have been proud to put his name to; but it’s the fugues that really impress me. The first of them, in G Minor, is based on a subject that sounds like it’s by Bach, but it evolves quickly in its short course into a more romantic vein. The second of the two fugues, in B?-Major, unfolds on a chromatic subject and evidences the sort of contrapuntal treatment that’s closer to Beethoven’s approach than it is to Bach’s. The final fugue, in D Minor, returns to a Bach style of counterpoint, ending, as do so many of Bach’s minor-key works, with a meltingly beautiful Picardy third cadence.
Of Brahms’s several variations works, his Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann hasn’t quite caught on like his Handel, Haydn, and Paganini tributes, but at 20 minutes’ length (in Deferne’s performance), it’s hardly a trifle. This, by the way, is op. 9, the earlier of the two variation works Brahms composed on themes by Schumann, the later work being op. 23. Already, at 21, Brahms demonstrates a grasp of variations technique that he would continue to develop throughout his life. The op. 9 work is based on the theme from the first
, the piece is in F?-Minor, a key Brahms retains for his variations.
Finally, the best-known and most oft-recorded work on the disc is Robert Schumann’s Toccata, op. 7. It’s said that this is the only piece Schumann ever specifically intended as a technical test of digital dexterity and nonstop endurance. It’s also said, though I can’t vouch for the veracity of it, that attempting to play the piece after he’d written it is what caused the injury to his hands. Therein surely lies some biblical lesson about being caught in a trap of your own making that you lay for your enemies.
Deferne’s playing throughout is simply gorgeous, richly toned and textured and highly sensitive to the music’s many poetic gestures. Initially, I put this disc on late one night and, as I listened to it in the dark, I found that it evoked in me an utterly blissful state. Hearing it again by light of day, bliss was replaced by a more critical appreciation of Deferne’s technical command and her expressive breadth. Just one minor nit to note: The 1994 recording is a tad brittle toward the top of the keyboard. Otherwise, this is a most rewarding and strongly recommended release.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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