Monday, June 7, 2010

Robert Schumann - the Ultimate Romantic

2010 is the bicentennial of Chopin’s birth. Less noted, but equally noteworthy, is that 2010 is also the bicentennial of the ultimate Romantic composer: Robert Schumann. If Chopin was “the only truly great composer for the piano” in the words of Vladimir Horowitz, Schumann was the truest Romantic, in the sense that his music pushed aside old forms and dwelled in literary shadows.

The bulk of Schumann’s output was for solo piano. That instrument also figured prominently accompanying vocalists in several song cycles, the most notable of these being the Op. 48 Dichterliebe.

Schumann’s piano writing is carefully notated, highly original, and often more difficult to play than it sounds. This is in contrast to Liszt, whose piano music is often easier than it sounds. Schumann’s contributions to the piano literature are incalculable. It can be safely said that any pianist who doesn’t have Schumann in his repertoire is probably not worth listening to.

When it came to works for larger forces, such as symphonies and concertos, Schumann was on shakier ground. Most performances of his symphonies have featured some alterations to Schumann’s orchestration, mostly to address balance problems.

Here are my recommendations for recording of Schumann’s output. This list is not comprehensive, but rather representative.

Op. 2: Papillons: Horszowski - Kempff - Perahia

Op. 6: Davidsbündlertänze: Kempff - Perahia

Op. 7: Toccata: Horowitz (1934) - Edelmann - Wild

Op. 9: Carnaval: Rachmaninoff - Rubinstein (1962)

Op. 11: Sonata in F-sharp minor: Perahia

Op. 12: Fantasy Pieces: Rubinstein (1962) - Perahia

Op. 13: Symphonic Etudes: Perahia - Edelmann

Op. 14: Sonata in F minor: Horowitz (1976 - authorized recording) (I cannot recommend Pollini’s recording because it does not contain the Scherzo. Glemser’s does, but I haven’t heard it. Wuhrer's also does, but as a performance it's dull as dishwater.)

Op. 15: Scenes of Childhood: Horowitz (1987 Vienna live recording) - Moiseiwitsch - Horszowski

Op. 16: Kreisleriana: Horowitz (1969 & 1985 studio recordings) - Lupu - Argerich

Op. 17: Fantasy: Horowitz (1965) - Perahia

Op. 18: Arabeske: Horowitz (1962) - Edelmann

Op. 19: Flower Piece: Horowitz (1966) This work is so rarely played, I cannot find another recording for inclusion. Horowitz's later recording, from 1975, is not as successful.

Op. 20: Humoreske: Horowitz - Lupu

Op. 21: Novelettes: Richter

Op. 22: Sonata in G minor: Perahia - Kempff (Schumann rewrote the finale of this Sonata after his wife Clara complained that it was too difficult. The original version can be heard here.)

Op. 26: Carnival Jest from Vienna: Perahia

Op. 82: Forest Scenes: Perahia - Kempff

Op. 111: Fantasy Pieces: Horowitz - Cherkassky

Op. 54: Piano Concerto: Rubinstein/RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra/Krips - Perahia/Berlin Philharmonic/Abbado - Fleisher/Cleveland Orchestra/Szell

The Four Symphonies: The Cleveland Orchestra/Szell



Hi, Hank ! It's been a long time since I last addressed you personally and not through Wikipedia. If you'll bear with me for a moment, I'd like to know your opinion on something. I remember in one of your Horowitz reviews for Amazon you once said that he played the octave glissando in the coda to the finale of Beethoven's Waldstein sonata staccato because - he claimed - it was impossible to perform it otherwise on the modern piano, or words to that effect. You countered this by saying that many pianists, including yourself, have played that passage glissando as marked, and that Horowitz probably simply preferred it the other way. Now, in the May/June issue of the International Piano magazine, British pianist Paul Lewis says that he is against playing that passage glissando "because Beethoven marked it pianissimo with long pedals to create an ethereal effect, and it's not possible to play an octave glissando pianissimo on a modern piano" (IP, pg. 53). Do you think Horowitz could have had this in mind when he decided against the glissando in that passage ? What do you think of Lewis' remark ?
Very best regards and congratulations on your absorbing blog,
Carlos Pinheiro Jr.

Hank Drake said...

Hi Carlos.

It's possible that's what Horowitz meant, but I doubt it, because the effect Horowitz gets with the staccato octaves is as far from ethereal as possible. Also, Horowitz was very leery about Beethoven's pedal markings - his Beethoven is more dryly pedaled than most pianists.

By the way, Paul Lewis is a student of Alfred Brendel, who DOES play the glissandi!

Hope all is will. said...


I like your recommendation.

How would you characterize this Schumann selection?

poor, good, mediocre?

Hank Drake said...

I don't pretend to know all of these recordings or even the performers.

I can comment on Edith Picht-Axenfield's recording of the Op. 14 Sonata: Completely leaden, weighted down, constipated performance. (She has also recorded the Gesang de Fruhe and the performance is similarly lifeless.)