Notes and Editorial Reviews
At first glance, it might appear that the Symphonic Etudes is one of Schumann’s most ambitious solo piano works. But a brief history of the piece reveals that it began as a more modest project, and was never published in the composer’s lifetime. Begun in 1834, Schumann composed 12 variations on a theme by the Baron von Fricken, whose daughter was both a pupil of the young composer and a fleeting amorous interest. The title Schumann originally gave to the piece was 12 Davidsbündler Studien, not to be confused with his Davidsbündlertänze, which is an entirely different work. Shortly thereafter, he changed the title to Studies in Orchestral Style for Piano by Florestan and Eusebius. Throughout his works and literary writings,
the two characters represented for Schumann the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses in life and art. His publisher, however, undoubtedly seeing red in all that black ink, changed the title for the 1837 edition to XII Etudes symphoniques. In 1852, the piece was republished under the title of Etudes in the form of Variations, but this time with only 10 numbers instead of 12. It wasn’t until 1873, nearly two decades after Schumann’s death, that five more variations (etudes) were unearthed and added to the original 12, making for the 17 we usually hear today in a version Schumann might not recognize.
The problem is, if you include the five additional variations, (and most pianists do) where do you put them? To this question, there is not a one-size-fits-all answer. Different pianists have come up with different solutions. Murray Perahia, in his 1976 Sony recording, for example, tacks them on at the end of the original 12. Claudio Arrau, in his 1991 compilation of Schumann’s piano works on Philips, inserts them along the way. Bernd Glemser, in his current Naxos recording, does likewise, inserting them at much the same points as Arrau, but not in exactly the same order.
Whether any of this is significant or not depends on why Schumann withheld the additional five etudes from publication in the first place. It is possible that he simply considered them inferior to the others, and in the interest of shortening and tightening up the work, decided to toss them. Or it could be, as with other cyclical works—Chopin’s preludes, for example—that the etudes Schumann retained follow some progressive sequence of keys or other formulaic layout. If the latter is the case, then sandwiching the posthumous etudes between the original 12 is disruptive to Schumann’s formal plan, and Perahia’s solution of appending them at the end is the better approach.
Whichever approach one prefers, however, it needs be noted that Glemser is here entering a theater ablaze with the glitterati of pianodom. The aforementioned Arrau and Perahia are only two luminaries on a long list that includes Brendel, Gilels, Richter, Rubinstein, Pollini, Pogorelich, Kissin, Cortot, Yves Nat, Moiseiwitsch, and even, to my surprise, Percy Grainger. I’ve not heard all of these recordings, nor is it necessary that I do in order to tell you, based on the evidence of the current entry, that Glemser may not take first prize in this contest, but he has no reason to slink away in shame. This is a very fine performance of the Etudes, with a particular emphasis on rhythmic pointing and contrapuntal clarity.
Schumann’s three-movement C-Major Phantasie, according to some, is his greatest work for solo piano. It is essentially a sonata without the restrictions and requirements imposed by a sonata in name. Schumann did in fact write three formally titled piano sonatas, but perhaps he found himself intimidated or inhibited by Beethoven, the master of the genre, for his own contributions are not among his best efforts. The Phantasie, however, freer in form and more episodic, allowed Schumann to explore in wide-ranging Romantic vein the Florestan-Eusebius conflict. Instead of the piece deriving its organizing principle from the juxtaposition and resolution of opposing keys that defines the sonata-allegro form, it builds upon the idea of a deep and ongoing conflict between the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses in human nature.
Glemser cavorts among much the same crowd in the Phantasie as he does in the Etudes; and while he still manages to hold his own quite well, he does not, in my opinion, bring to the piece the same degree of fantasy and caprice that Rubinstein did in his 1965 RCA Italiano Studios recording. Glemser seems to be more comfortable in the more constructionist Etudes. Nonetheless, this is a fine recording, and at Naxos’s prices, practically a giveaway.
Jerry Dubins, FANFARE
Works on This Recording
Symphonic Etudes for Piano, Op. 13 by Robert Schumann
Bernd Glemser (Piano)
Written: 1837/1852; Germany
Notes: Composition written: Germany (1837).
Composition revised: Germany (1852).
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