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Hyperion Records

CDA67166 - Schumann: Piano Music
A River Scene in Alsace by Charles Euphrasie Kurwasseg (1833-1904)
Fine Art Photographic Library / Burlington Paintings

Recording details: Various dates
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: February 2001
Total duration: 75 minutes 34 seconds

‘Supreme artistry’ (Pianist Magazine)

‘These are among the most poetic readings you will find by anyone. The tone is beautiful, the phrases long and songful, the drama passionate. This disc whets one’s appetite for more mainstream masterpieces from the world’s fastest fingers’ (The Capital Times)

‘For me the outstanding performance is the great C major Fantasie…so beautifully voiced and phrased I can only say that it moved me more deeply than any I have heard for a long time’ (Gramophone)

'A dazzling technician fuses technical dexterity and poetry to compelling effect' (Gramophone)

‘If you want to experience a whirlwind ride, Hamelin is definitely your man. A remarkable tour-de-force’ (The Irish Times)

'Hamelin brings a transcendental technique and passionate romantic temperament to music that, more often than not, is the preserve of pianistic intellectuals and poets. But his performances of the great C major Fantasy and the Symphonic Studies are not merely exercises in virtuosity. His astounding feats of dexterity and dazzling spectrum of colour are constantly put to the service of the music. This is freshly conceived Schumann, light and brilliant in bravura passages—the concluding Allegro brillante of the Etudes rarely sounds so joyous—yet never lightweight in reflective music: the slow third movement of the Fantasy is a poignantly poetic meditation, while the lovely Andantino of the Sonata glows with an entirely appropriate inward emotional intensity. Hamelin's Schumann ideally combines the extrovert and introspective characteristics of this glorious music. Highly recommended.' (The Sunday Times)

'Genuinely outstanding disc' (The Guardian)

'While there’s no shortage of either visceral excitement or poetic exploration, this remains supremely balanced playing … If you’re already a Hamelin aficionado, of course, you won’t need my urging to buy this disc; but if you’ve been wary because of his usually offbeat repertoire, here’s a chance to see what he can contribute to the mainstream. Top recommendation' (Fanfare, USA)

'[Hamelin’s] reading is glorious in its blend of virtuosity and emotional commitment … The recording quality is first-rate. I doubt very much if the current year will produce a finer piano CD’ (Musical Opinion)

Piano Music
Rondo: Presto  [5'19]
Thema: Andante  [1'45]
Variation 2  [3'14]
Étude 3: Vivace  [1'23]
Variation 3  [0'58]
Variation 4  [1'05]
Variation 5  [0'51]
Variation 7  [2'56]
Variation 8  [1'13]
Variation 9  [2'35]

This disc contains Schumann's three greatest abstract works for piano (as opposed to his suites of character pieces such as Carnival and Kinderszenen), including the Fantasy Op 17—arguably his finest piano work. Marc-André Hamelin has lived with these works for many years, and has made something of a speciality of the C major Fantasy, which he has played many times in concert. These performances have been widely praised, and we are delighted that this studio recording captures all the poetry and Romantic feeling of his live performances.

Schumann was, of course, primarily a lyricist of the piano, but that did not stop him writing some of the most fearsomely difficult passages in the repertoire: the coda to the second movement of the Fantasy is an infamous example, as are many of the variations in the Études symphoniques. Nevertheless, Marc-André Hamelin's legendary virtuosity allows him complete freedom to concentrate on the music rather than merely on the technical challenges. His now familiar hallmarks of refinement of tone and clarity of line, coupled with his warmth of expression, enable him to communicate Schumann's poetry with a rare poise and passion. All in all, this is yet another outstanding recording to add to Hamelin's impressive discography for Hyperion.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Schumann’s Op 13 is one of a number of his piano works—others include the Impromptus, Op 5, and Davidsbündlertänze, Op 6—that exist in two distinct published versions, the first dating from the 1830s and the second a consequence of a process of revision undertaken in the early 1850s. In the case of Op 13, the original composition took place between December 1834 and January 1835, and the resulting publication of 1837 was entitled XII Etudes symphoniques; the revision, issued by a different publisher in 1852, bore the title Etudes en forme de Variations; it is this version, from which the third and ninth pieces of the original sequence are omitted, and other revisions made, that is recorded here.

Each of the two titles both reveals and suppresses information about the music. The 1852 version acknowledges that the work effectively belongs to the genre of theme and variations, each ‘study’ being a relatively strict variation on the sixteen-bar theme heard at the outset. (Moreover, the individual variations are identified as such, whereas in the 1837 edition the term ‘étude’ is employed, consistent with the overall title.) On the other hand, the reference to ‘symphonic’ quality in the 1837 version acknowledges the frankly orchestral conception of much of the writing, which demands real pianistic virtuosity; to this extent, the designation ‘étude’ is appropriate, in that each étude/variation explores a particular pianistic figuration and thus fulfils Schumann’s demand that an étude should ‘develop technique or lead to the mastery of some particular difficulty’.

An even earlier idea for the title is more revealing still: ‘Etüden im Orchestercharakter … von Florestan und Eusebius’ not only reinforces the understanding of symphonique noted above, but offers a means of understanding the ‘poetic’ content of the music. Evidently Schumann meant to express the contrasting aspects of his own character through the fictive personalities of his two ‘best friends’, as he called them: the active, dynamic Florestan, and the more passive, introspective Eusebius. Whether he initially intended to sign each of the études ‘F’ or ‘E’, as in the first edition of Davidsbündlertänze, is unclear; in any case, neither in 1837 nor in 1852 did Eusebius feature very prominently, despite the ostensibly Eusebian nature of the theme itself, marked ‘Andante’. (That there was originally more of Eusebius in the work is suggested by five further études, omitted from both versions and published posthumously in an edition by Brahms.)

Schumann claimed that the sixteen-bar theme was composed by the Baron von Fricken, father of Ernestine, with whom Schumann had fallen in love during 1834 (the family lived in Asch, the musical translation of the letters of which name provided Schumann with the ‘Sphinxes’ which underpin the music of his Carnaval, Op 9). The études/variations which follow tend to hold fast to the harmonic and melodic structure of the theme, though not to the suppression of all inventiveness: in Variation II, for example, the original melody becomes the bass underpinning of a new soprano line; and Variation VI substitutes E major for C sharp minor, the key of the theme and all other variations except the extended finale, which provides a triumphant major-mode ending and incorporates in its main theme a quotation from the (then) well-known Romance ‘Du stolzes England, freue dich’, from Marschner’s Der Templer und die Jüdin: a subtle homage, perhaps, to the nationality of the dedicatee, Schumann’s friend and fellow-composer William Sterndale Bennett. Prior to the finale, fugato and canonic writing are prominent in Variations I, III, and IV, while Variation VII alludes to the stylistic world of the Baroque, and specifically the French overture.

Fugato, canon, the Baroque … indeed, ‘one cannot fail to note the powerful, lasting impressions that the study of Classical models, such as Bach or Beethoven, made on Schumann’: this judgment of Schumann’s friend Karl Kossmaly, in perhaps the earliest (1844) extended critique of Schumann’s piano works, sits awkwardly with a vein of criticism, already present in the later nineteenth century and continuing through much of the twentieth, that saw Schumann’s compositional efforts in the ‘higher’ forms as fundamentally flawed and unsuccessful compared to his output in ‘small’ forms such as the étude and Charakterstück: the supposedly ‘intellectual’ rigours of traditional Formenlehre were thought fundamentally inimical to his more romantic and poetic temperament. Yet Schumann himself stressed again and again the importance of continuing and developing the Classical tradition, which for him was enshrined most immediately and powerfully in the legacy of Beethoven. Aside from the three completed and published piano sonatas—Op 11, Op 22, and Op 14 (originally published in 1836 as the three-movement Concert sans orchestre, and given the title Grande Sonate only on its 1853 reissue, in five movements)—Schumann’s aspirations during the 1830s towards this pre-eminent instrumental genre are reflected also in the Allegro in B minor, Op 8 (1831), which is the first movement of a projected sonata in that key, as well as in further projected sonatas in B flat and F minor (a composition distinct from Op 14, in the same key), dating from 1836/7.

Of the three completed and published sonatas, Op 22 in G minor generally follows the Classical model most faithfully, even if its four-movement design perhaps owes more to Schubert than to Beethoven’s later compositions in the genre. This design it shares with the contemporary Op 11, in F sharp minor, and other details link the two works. In both cases Schumann observes the tradition of a repeated exposition (though in other respects the first movement of Op 22 is a more ‘textbook’ exemplar of sonata form than is that of Op 11); the (relatively) short slow movement of each sonata reworks material from among Schumann’s earliest Lied compositions, settings of poems by Justinus Kerner which he had made in 1828 (Op 22 reworks ‘Im Herbste’, the text of which tells of a lover’s desire to displace the sun and other natural forces in relation to his beloved); and there is a climactic quality to each finale—though in the case of Op 22 this remark needs to be qualified by reference to the compositional history of the work, which, as in the case of Op 13 and so much of Schumann’s early piano music, is less than straightforward.

Leaving aside the pre-existing vocal model for the slow movement, Schumann’s principal work on Op 22 spanned more than two years: the first and third movements are dated June 1833 in the autograph manuscript, and the finale is dated October 1835, though Schumann was still altering the first movement as late as 1838. In March of that year, Clara wrote to him praising the sonata, and remarking favourably on its relative lack of ‘incomprehensibility’ [Unverständlichkeit], a charge frequently laid at Schumann’s door at that time. But she urged him to reconsider the finale, a 478-bar ‘Presto passionato’ in 6/16 metre, which she felt could only be detrimental to the reception of the work as a whole owing to its very lack of comprehensibility to the general public. Schumann evidently heeded her remarks, and subsequently wrote a completely new finale, a shorter and more straightforward Rondo that—a further classicizing gesture—acts more as a counterweight to the opening movement than as an overpowering of it. It is in this form, concluding with a more dispassionate ‘Presto’, that Op 22 was finally published in September 1839 and is recorded here.

In that same year, in a review of the state of sonata composition, Schumann appeared to recede from his earlier championing of the genre: ‘it looks as if this form has run its course, which is indeed in the nature of things[;] we should not repeat the same thing century after century and also have an eye to the new. So, write sonatas, or fantasies (what’s in a name!), only let not music be forgotten meanwhile’. It would be more accurate to understand Schumann as cautioning not against sonata composition per se, but rather against an unthinking, repetitive and formulaic perpetuation of formal convention for its own sake. The implication that the generic terms ‘sonata’ and ‘fantasia’—the one the epitome of premeditated, tightly-constructed music, the other of improvised outpouring of spontaneous feeling—need not be understood as eternally contradictory is particularly telling, in that 1839 also saw the publication of the Fantasie, Op 17, the piano work generally held to exhibit Schumann’s most successful handling of large-scale form and one in which sonata and fantasia elements are held in a fascinating tension.

Once again, the compositional history is complex but unavoidable. In June 1836, during a period of enforced separation from Clara, Schumann composed a single-movement Fantaisie [sic] to which he gave the title ‘Ruines’: he was subsequently to tell Clara that it had been a ‘deep lament’ for her. Later in the year, inspired by the idea of raising money for the monument to Beethoven which Liszt (to whom Schumann dedicated the Fantasie) and others proposed to erect in Bonn, he added two further movements, called ‘Trophaeen’ and ‘Palmen’, and proposed to publish the three together as a Grosse Sonate … für Beethovens Denkmal. The second and third movements were subsequently given new titles (‘Siegesbogen’ and ‘Sternbild’), and the complete work was variously entitled Phantasieen, Fata Morgana, and Dichtungen before Schumann eventually decided on the generic, singular Fantasie, stemming from the originally independent first movement. The term aptly suits that rhapsodic and sectionally conceived movement, which nonetheless clearly acknowledges the conventions of sonata form while simultaneously playing against them at almost every turn. On the other hand, the three-movement design of the whole is more characteristic of the sonata, notwithstanding that the sequence of movements here is quite uncharacteristic of the classical sonata.

If we then describe Schumann’s Op 17 as a fantasia quasi una sonata, we remind ourselves of an obvious model for the generic duality displayed in Schumann’s conception of the piece: namely, Beethoven’s two sonatas Op 27, both of which were published in 1802 as sonata quasi una fantasia. (One thinks, too, of Schubert’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantasia, D760, which overlays a four-movement sonata design on the continuous but sectional construction of the work.) And Beethoven’s ‘presence’ in the Fantasie seemingly goes much further than both this and Schumann’s passing idea of a ‘sonata for Beethoven’. Preparing the work for publication during 1838, Schumann decided to preface the score with a quotation from Friedrich Schlegel:

Durch alle Töne tönet
Im bunten Erdentraum
Ein leiser Ton gezogen
Für den, der heimlich lauschet
Through all the notes
In earth’s many-coloured dream
There sounds one soft long-drawn note
For the one who listens in secret.

‘Are not you really the “note” in the motto? I almost believe you are’, wrote Schumann to Clara in June 1839—a remark which may have been intended rather less seriously than has usually been assumed. But there is no doubt that, above all in the first movement, a very subtle process of thematic and motivic interrelationship is being employed. Whereas one would normally expect such a process to begin from a clearly identifiable musical idea which subsequently becomes transformed, the beauty of Schumann’s achievement in this movement lies in its seeming reversal of that process. For to the extent that anything can be defined as the thematic or motivic kernel of this music, it seems to be the two-bar phrase which begins the ‘Adagio’ section at the very end of the movement; and this phrase has long been held to be an allusion to the last song of Beethoven’s cycle An die ferne Geliebte, where it sets the words ‘Nimm sie hin, denn, diese Lieder’ (‘So take them, these songs [which I sang to you]’). In June 1836, when Schumann composed this movement under the title ‘Ruines’, Clara was literally his ‘distant beloved’, with whom he could communicate only in his imagination by means of shared music. And Clara did, in the end, sing his song back to him: ‘Yesterday I received your wonderful Fantasy,’ she wrote on 23 May 1839; ‘today I am still half ill with rapture’.

Nicholas Marston © 2001

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