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Hyperion Records

APR5586 - Sergio Fiorentino – The Early Recordings, Vol. 6 – Schumann
APR5586

Recording details: August 1965
Guildford Civic Hall, United Kingdom
Release date: February 2008
Total duration: 75 minutes 21 seconds

Sergio Fiorentino – The Early Recordings, Vol. 6 – Schumann
No 1: Préambule: Quasi maestoso  [2'18]  recorded 10 August 1965
No 2: Pierrot: Moderato  [1'28]  recorded 10 August 1965
No 3: Arlequin: Vivo  [0'40]  recorded 10 August 1965
No 4: Valse noble: Un poco maestoso  [1'03]  recorded 10 August 1965
No 5: Eusebius: Adagio  [1'31]  recorded 10 August 1965
No 6: Florestan: Passionato  [0'56]  recorded 10 August 1965
No 7: Coquette: Vivo  [0'58]  recorded 10 August 1965
No 8a: Réplique: L'istesso tempo  [0'21]  recorded 10 August 1965
No 8b: Sphinxes  [0'56]  recorded 10 August 1965
No 9: Papillons: Prestissimo  [0'39]  recorded 10 August 1965
No 10: ASCH–SCHA (Lettres dansantes): Presto  [0'54]  recorded 10 August 1965
No 11: Chiarina: Passionato  [1'42]  recorded 10 August 1965
No 12: Chopin: Agitato  [1'21]  recorded 10 August 1965
No 13: Estrella: Con affetto  [0'23]  recorded 10 August 1965
No 14: Reconnaissance: Animato  [1'37]  recorded 10 August 1965
No 15: Pantalon et Colombine: Presto  [0'53]  recorded 10 August 1965
No 16: Valse allemande: Molto vivace  [0'54]  recorded 10 August 1965
No 17: Paganini (Intermezzo): Presto  [1'18]  recorded 10 August 1965
No 18: Aveu: Passionato  [1'02]  recorded 10 August 1965
No 19: Promenade: Comodo  [2'13]  recorded 10 August 1965
No 20: Pause: Vivo  [0'17]  recorded 10 August 1965
Von fremden Ländern und Menschen  [1'53]  recorded 10 August 1965
Kuriose Geschichte  [1'08]  recorded 10 August 1965
Hasche-Mann  [0'30]  recorded 10 August 1965
Bittendes Kind  [0'42]  recorded 10 August 1965
Glückes genug  [0'44]  recorded 10 August 1965
Wichtige Begebenheit  [0'53]  recorded 10 August 1965
Träumerei  [2'43]  recorded 10 August 1965
Am Kamin  [0'33]  recorded 10 August 1965
Ritter vom Steckenpferd  [0'40]  recorded 10 August 1965
Fast zu ernst  [1'41]  recorded 10 August 1965
Fürchtenmachen  [1'11]  recorded 10 August 1965
Kind im Einschlummern  [1'50]  recorded 10 August 1965
Der Dichter spricht  [2'33]  recorded 10 August 1965
Arabeske in C major Op 18  [6'48]  recorded 10 August 1965
Thema: Andante  [1'39]  recorded 10 August 1965
Variation 1: Un poco più vivo  [1'08]  recorded 10 August 1965
Variation 2  [4'05]  recorded 10 August 1965
Étude 3: Vivace  [1'11]  recorded 10 August 1965
Variation 3  [0'47]  recorded 10 August 1965
Variation 4  [1'02]  recorded 10 August 1965
Variation 5  [0'47]  recorded 10 August 1965
Variation 6: Allegro molto  [1'07]  recorded 10 August 1965
Variation 7  [2'47]  recorded 10 August 1965
Étude 9: Presto possibile  [0'34]  recorded 10 August 1965
Variation 8  [1'11]  recorded 10 August 1965
Variation 9  [2'40]  recorded 10 August 1965
Finale: Allegro brillante  [5'45]  recorded 10 August 1965

This is a recording from Appian Publications & Recordings Ltd (to quote the full title)—the label invariably more familiarly known simply as "APR".

Since its foundation in 1986, APR has won an enviable reputation as a quality label devoted predominantly—though not exclusively—to historic piano recordings. In particular APR has won countless laurels for the high standard of its 78rpm restoration work—"Transfers of genius" to quote one critic—as well as the detail and content of its booklets.


Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The Italian pianist Sergio Fiorentino (1927–98) excelled in many areas of the repertory, but he enjoyed a particularly close affinity with the music of Schumann. His effortless blend of a seemingly unimpeachable technique, a wonderful ability to sing a line, and a sense of strong but never overbearing characterization made him a natural for Schumann’s highly strung emotionalism.

The four works included here, recorded over a mere two days in August 1965, show him equally at home in a work as outwardly modest as the Arabeske, and in the virtuosic Études symphoniques and Carnaval.

Fiorentino’s Carnaval belongs in an illus­trious lineage of great recorded performances, from Cortot and Rachmaninov to Hess and Arrau. He offers a panoply of brilliantly etched character sketches – both of real people – as in Chopin and Paganini – and imaginary ones – as in Schumann’s old friends Florestan and Eusebius, as well as figures from the com­media dell’arte. It has a long and distinguished performance history – after all, it was Liszt (an early champion of the work) who commented that in time it would find its true place along­side Beethoven’s ‘Diabelli’ Variations. Fiorentino reminds us of its intrinsic stature in a perfor­mance of these twenty-one miniatures (twenty-two if you count the usually silent ‘Sphinxes’) that captures the character of each perfectly while also having a strong overview of the architecture of Schumann’s masked ball. The pianist’s natural grace, stunning but always unassuming virtuosity, and limpidity of tone make his Carnaval a truly memorable event.

Schumann wrote Carnaval in 1834/5. As so often with his piano works, it was inspired by a woman – not Clara in this case (though she does put in an appearance, in ‘Chiarina’, No 11), but an earlier love and fellow piano student, Ernestine von Fricken. They’d got as far as getting secretly engaged, before her father found out and put an abrupt stop to it. Like Clara, Ernestine gets her own portrait, in ‘Estrella’ (No 13). But more importantly than that, the letters of the town from which she hailed, Asch (which also appear in Schumann’s own name), translated into the notes A, E flat, C and B, form the basis of all but two pieces in Carnaval, like a secret cipher. Schumann, in a letter to his mother, described Ernestine as having a ‘wonderfully pure, childlike character, delicate and thoughtful’.

If ever there were a work of Schumann that demanded a completely unbridled approach it is surely Carnaval. One of Schumann’s favourite writers, Jean Paul, once wrote ‘a masked ball is perhaps the most perfect medium through which poetry can interpret life’ and certainly in Fiorentino’s reading life seems utterly intoxicating. The way he takes off in the più molto brillante of the ‘Préambule’ (No 1), at an almost reckless pace, sets the scene for what is to come. There is the odd smudge along the way as a result, but that seems irrelevant in playing of such glistening energy. Like the best Carnavals on record, Fiorentino gives each movement (sometimes mere seconds long) a precisely defined charac­ter, so that we as listeners have the impression of eavesdropping on a night of high revelry. In his hands ‘Pierrot’ (No 2) is quite a stubborn character, landing a belligerent musical sur­prise at the end; by contrast ‘Arlequin’ (No 3) is all grace and wit, ‘Estrella’ (No 13) full of passion and charm, making it easy to under­stand Schumann’s infatuation, while ‘Pantalon et Columbine’ (No 15) almost fall over each other in their excitement. Schumann’s fictional alter egos are strongly contrasted: ‘Eusebius’ (No 5), with a sinuous seven-in-a-bar, is complex, introverted and not without a wistful charm, while ‘Florestan’ (No 6) enters stealthily, shows off but also beguiles the listener before dancing out of sight. Fiorentino chooses to play the hidden ‘Sphinxes’, as was once commonplace, and presents them as straight chordal pro­gressions rather than the Hammer Horror film effects of some. ‘Paganini’ (No 17) and the penultimate ‘Pause’ (No 20) are fittingly breakneck, and Fiorentino also takes a fast approach to ‘Papillons’ (No 9), which are not the daintiest creatures on record, but certainly some of the most agitated. But let’s not forget that a ball is as much about grace as colourful characters, and there’s style aplenty to be found in Fiorentino’s reading, be it the supremely elegant ‘Valse noble’ (No 4) or the ‘Valse allemande’ (No 16), where the pianist revels in its dynamic contrasts.

There are occasional deviations from Schumann’s text – such as when he starts ‘Réplique’ at a louder dynamic than the composer indicated, or when he takes his time over ‘Chopin’, which is more reflective than Agitato – but there’s never a sense of anything going against the natural flow of the music. It’s a tribute to the pianist’s sheer imagination at the keyboard that he can elevate even less inspired numbers, such as ‘A.S.C.H. – S.C.H.A. (Lettres dansantes)’, to sit among the best. This is in part due to the supple elegance of his playing, which also turns ‘Reconnaissance’ into a perfectly hewn gem. There is a sense, in this reading, of a musical crescendo through the entire work that culminates in Schumann’s rip-roaring ‘Marche des ‘Davidsbündler’ contre les Philistins’. In Fiorentino’s hands, there’s no doubt as to who the winners are, with the philistines trampled underfoot.

Kinderszenen was written in 1838. But the title, ‘Scenes from Childhood’, can be mis­leading, for there is nothing childish about these pieces, nor are they intended for the fingers of children; even the simpler numbers have an entirely adult degree of sophistication while technically feisty creations such as the whirling ‘Hasche-Mann’ (Blindman’s Buff) and ‘Ritter vom Steckenpferd’ (Knight of the hobby-horse) offer challenges of their own. It was not for nothing that Schumann described Kinder­szenen as ‘reminiscences of a grown-up for grown-ups’. He wrote it during his secret engage­ment with Clara, a time of hope but also torment, and he makes explicit his indebted­ness to her, writing in March 1838: ‘Perhaps it was an echo of what you once said to me, that “sometimes I seemed to you like a child” … I was suddenly visited by inspiration, and I then knocked off about 30 quaint little things, from which I have selected 12 and called them Kinderszenen. You will enjoy them – though you will have to forget that you are a virtuoso.’ That is something of which Fiorentino takes note, finding a sense of fun as well as a tender eloquence in what amounts to a most affectionate portrait.

The published set ended up as thirteen, rather than Schumann’s twelve, and for all Schumann’s love of children (he had eight of his own), there’s not a whiff of sentimentality about the music. Fiorentino understands this well, choosing apt tempi – from his gently flowing opening ‘Vom fremden Ländern und Menschen’ (From foreign lands and peoples) and the tenderly entreating child in ‘Bittendes Kind’ (Pleading child), its inner lines beauti­fully wrought, to the genial intimacy of ‘Am Kamin’ (At the fireside). This is a work full of delectable reverie, which is another aspect ideally revealed in Fiorentino’s interpretation, be it the well-known ‘Träumerei’ (Dreaming), the heartbreaking innocence of ‘Kind im Einschlummern’ (Child falling asleep) or the final quiet utterances of ‘Der Dichter spricht’ (The poet speaks). There is fun too – high jinks in ‘Ritter vom Steckenpferd’, once again with eloquently drawn inner lines, and superbly feigned pomposity of ‘Wichtige Begeben­heit’ (An important event), while the bogeyman depicted in ‘Fürchtenmachen’ (Frightening) is dramatic but not so terrifying as to induce nightmares among younger listeners. In the end, it is the poetry of Fiorentino as much as Schumann which makes this such a compelling reading.

The Arabeske is contemporary with Kinder­szenen and shares its apparent simplicity. It’s hardly surprising then that it has proved an irresistible attraction to genera­tions of young piano students, yet it takes a high degree of artistry to strike a balance between the artless simplicity it needs and an attentive­ness to detail and variation in order to make the most of the repetitions of what Schumann described (in a letter to Clara in 1839) as ‘such lovely melodies’. He declared, self-deprecatingly, that he had composed it to please the ladies of Vienna, but that is to imply a superficiality that isn’t to be found. Its rippling opening section is suggestive of charm but also an underlying unease, which Fiorentino plays up with rubato and question­ing pauses at phrase ends. This unease deepens when the music moves into the minor. The opening melody finally makes its way back before being interrupted by a martial dotted theme – sharply etched but never unfeeling in Fiorentino’s reading. The opening theme makes one final appearance, leading into a coda which is at first dramatic, and finally tenderly resignatory.

Schumann’s original title for his Études symphoniques was ‘Études im Orchester character von Eusebius und Florestan’, making apparent the almost orchestral sonorities he draws from the piano as well as the two sides of his manic-depressive charac­ter, as depicted in his fictional alter egos, Eusebius and Florestan. Once again, there is a link to Ernestine von Fricken, for the bold and grave C sharp minor theme was apparently composed by her father, Baron von Fricken. If Schumann struggled with the sonata as a form, he was much more at home with variations, as this brilliant, large-scale set demonstrates. Schumann composed the work between December 1834 and January 1835 and it exists in two published versions. Fiorentino plays the more frequently performed second edition, published in 1852 under the title Études en forme de Variations.

The individual études range wide, exploring different aspects of piano technique without losing the basic harmonic and melodic structure of the sixteen-bar theme. In the second étude, for instance, the opening theme appears in the bass line, with a new counter-melody in the top line. The music remains in the minor until the seventh étude, when it switches to E major. The major (D flat) then at last makes a triumphant reappearance in the extended ending, which banishes earlier turmoil and firmly routs the philistines, just as Schumann did at the end of Carnaval, this time incorporating into its main theme a quotation from ‘Du stolzes England, freue dich’ from Marschner’s opera Der Templer und die Jüdin. It was a work much in vogue at the time, and may have also been a covert tribute to the British composer and friend of Schumann, William Sterndale Bennett, to whom the Études symphoniques are dedicated.

Sergio Fiorentino’s reading is charac­ter­ized by grandeur – he gives the initial theme plenty of breathing space – unobtrusive virtu­osity, as this work demands, and an alluring tone. He uses it to great effect in the turbulent melody-line of the second étude, which is accom­panied by quietly agitated triplet semi­quavers. That same étude demonstrates the enviable freedom with which Fiorentino uses rubato to shape individual études, and throughout, he uses repeats to intensify and deepen our understanding of this music.

The fiendish right-hand staccato arpeggios of the third étude are thrown off with aplomb, the melody sympathetically sung in the tenor line, and a similar bravura lightness can be found in the sixth étude. When power is needed, Fiorentino supplies it in abundance, for instance in his big, ringing tone of étude No 7 (marked sempre brillante) and in the dotted dance of joy of the final étude. But by treating this work as one of delicacy as much as brilliance, Fiorentino finds much more light and shade than pianists who see it more as a vehicle for display. The sforzando accents in the fourth étude are not banged out, but put in the context of a piece that never rises above mezzo-forte. Similarly, in the Presto possibile ninth étude, the senza pedale marking gives it an ethereal quality, which is then swept away by the pedalled final arpeggio, beautifully shaded by Fiorentino. Best of all is the fact that Fiorentino never feels the need to draw attention to his playing; he is merely a conduit through which Schumann’s astonishing music can pass.

Harriet Smith © 2008


Other albums in this series
'Sergio Fiorentino – The Early Recordings, Vol. 5 – Rachmaninov' (APR5585)
Sergio Fiorentino – The Early Recordings, Vol. 5 – Rachmaninov
APR5585  Download only  
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