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Hyperion Records

CDH55300 - Schumann: Piano Sonatas
The Storm by Narcisse-Virgilio Diaz de la Peña (1807-1876)
Reproduced by permission of The Trustees, The National Gallery, London
(Originally issued on CDA66864)

Recording details: January 1996
Snape Maltings, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Erik Smith
Engineered by Ken Blair
Release date: April 2008
Total duration: 67 minutes 5 seconds

'A pair of performances which can justly be described in terms of superlatives. Outstanding readings of remarkable works' (Classic CD)

'Originally recorded and released in 1996, Hyperion's decision to re-issue Nikolai Demidenko's performances of these sonatas on the Helios label is most welcome, and will hopefully bring renewed recognition to these superlative accounts. Demidenko is a formidable pianist, and from the fiery opening bars of the F sharp-minor Sonata's first movement one senses that something special is about to unfold. The Introduzione finally leaves us in a state of hushed wonder, yielding to the restless commotion of the Allegro vivace. The texturing of Schumann's imitative piano figurations is electrifying, as is the ghostlike final appearance of the second subject in the tonic that brings the movement to an eerie close. A tranquil, ringing cantabile is achieved in the ensuing Aria, which contrasts starkly with the rhythmic dynamism of the iridescent Scherzo. The finale, with its Schubertian harmonic wanderings and its recitative-like Scherzo quotations, is equally captivating' (Musical

'Ce diable de Nikolaï Demidenko saisit l'occasion pour nous offrir une lecture de ses pages où le lyrisme le plus tendre le dispute à la violence la plus aiguë' (Diapason, France)

Piano Sonatas
Movement 2: Aria  [3'23]

This obvious yet rare coupling brings together the larger two of Schumann's three Piano Sonatas, their passionate intensity suiting perfectly Nikolai Demidenko's style of playing.

The disc has the added bonus of containing an additional Scherzo and two Variations from Schumann's earlier thoughts on the Op 14 Sonata.

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
An entry in Schumann’s diary dated 20 April 1832 contains a list of future plans, among them a Fandango pour le piano which was clearly connected with a projected second book of Papillons. On 30 May Schumann noted:

At the piano the fandango idea came to me—I was uncommonly happy when I stopped, and I looked out of the window up at the beautiful spring sky. I felt gentle breezes, and I heard a nightingale sing so fervently—and just as I was thinking of my Papillons a beautiful large moth fluttered to the window. But it kept away from the light, and did not scorch its wings. This was a good sign for me; but the fandango was going around in my head far too much—though that is a heavenly idea with godly figures, and still more adaptable than the masked ball [Papillons].

Schumann eventually decided against publishing his fandango and incorporated it instead into his Piano Sonata in F sharp minor Op 11, where it appears juxtaposed with a ‘rocking’ fifths motif as the opening movement’s main Allegro theme. The fifths idea seems to have been a deliberate reference to the last of Clara Wieck’s Quatre pièces caractéristiques, Op 5—a piece entitled ‘Le Ballet des revenants’ (‘Ballet of the Ghosts’). Clara Wieck’s piece also contains a theme remarkably similar to that of Schumann’s fandango, though it is likely that in this case she borrowed the material from him.

The opening pages of Schumann’s Op 11 Sonata are clearly labelled as an ‘Introduzione’, though their fully formed melodic character lends them the aspect of a self-contained entity. Even when the theme of the introduction returns at the centre of the ensuing Allegro, its reappearance acts as an interruption to the music’s developmental flow, rather than being an integral part of it. It is true that the introduction focuses on the motif of the falling fifth which is to form the Allegro’s starting point, but its isolation from the main body of the movement is emphasized by its most unusual feature: the gentle melody that unfolds shortly after its beginning is the theme of the sonata’s slow movement. This startlingly original piece of long-range anticipation is by no means a gratuitous gesture: the falling fifth also features prominently in the slow movement. At the end of the introduction Schumann carries out one of his characteristic experiments in piano sonority, the falling fifth emerging pianissimo out of a blurred swirl of sound.

The Allegro is dominated by what Schumann called his ‘fandango’ idea. The only significant contrast is provided by a smooth theme in the major that emerges at the end of the exposition, fulfilling the role of a traditional second subject. Even here, though, the falling fifth motif, with its dotted rhythm surviving intact, is absorbed as an accompanimental figure.

Schumann describes the slow movement as an ‘Aria’, and it is in fact based on a song he had written as an eighteen-year-old student. (The song, An Anna, to a poem by Justinus Kerner, was not published until Brahms included it in the supplement to the collected edition of Schumann’s works, issued in 1893.) In Schumann’s piano setting the beginning of the melody significantly unfolds over a sustained perfect fifth in the bass, and its delicate air of understatement is underlined by the marking of senza passione, ma espressivo. When Liszt reviewed the sonata for the Paris Gazette musicale (alongside the F minor Sonata, Op 14, and the Impromptus on a Theme of Clara Wieck, Op 5) he singled out the slow movement for special praise, describing it as ‘a song of great passion, expressed with fullness and calm’. The falling fifths that punctuate the melody are not found in the original song, and were clearly added in order to stress the unity of the sonata’s opening pair of movements.

Behind the framework of the third movement lies the notion of a through-composed scherzo with two trios. The tempo quickens for the first quasi-trio whose opening bars are underpinned by the first movement’s ‘rocking’ fifths motif, played pianissimo leggierissimo. The second trio—or ‘Intermezzo’ as Schumann calls it—is written very much tongue-in-cheek. It abruptly abandons the agitated, adventurous style of the piece thus far in favour of what seems to be a parody of the old-fashioned school. The episode is, in essence, an absurdly heavy-handed polonaise, and Schumann marks it, appropriately enough, Alla burla, ma pomposo. There is little doubt that we are here face to face with a Papillon—perhaps an extract from the lost set of ‘XII Burlesken (burle) in the style of Papillons’ which Schumann had sent to the publishers Breitkopf und Härtel in 1832.

There is a further surprise in store before the scherzo is allowed to return, in the shape of an orchestrally inclined recitative complete with a ‘Papillon’ that takes flight on the oboe before being angrily dismissed by the full band. And to add to the confusion, the scherzo returns at the wrong pitch before being thrown into the correct key a couple of bars later—a typically Schumannesque touch.

There are more orchestral sonorities in the finale: tremolos deep in the bass register while above them the texture gradually increases in weight, like a crescendo over a drum roll; a staccato passage near the close, marked quasi pizzicato; tutti chords punched out at top speed (one of several features in the piece that make it a formidable technical challenge to the pianist). This sonata-rondo based on a duple-metre theme forced into the strait-jacket of three beats to the bar was, in fact, the first part of the sonata to be composed. If it lacks the coherence and dramatic sweep of the opening movement, the music’s élan and inventiveness carry the listener unfailingly through to its triumphant F sharp major conclusion.

The Op 11 Sonata was a source of much grief to Schumann. He later described it to Clara as ‘one long cry from the heart to you’, and it is significant that her name appeared in large letters on the title page of the original edition—a display of romantic affection. Schumann’s own name was conspicuously absent, the inscription being simply: ‘To Clara from Florestan and Eusebius’. It was when Schumann sent her the newly published score in May 1836 that he was first made aware of her father’s implacable opposition to any serious relationship between the two of them. Wieck instructed Clara to return all Schumann’s letters, and she meekly obeyed.

In the summer of that same year, 1836, Schumann carried out the greater part of his work on the Piano Sonata in F minor Op 14. This was, as he later confessed, his ‘darkest period’—a time when he was completely separated from Clara. If some of Clara’s musical ideas had left their mark on the opening movement of the F sharp minor Sonata, the new work placed Clara quite literally centre-stage: the sonata as Schumann originally designed it had five movements, with the slow movement framed by two scherzos. Not only did the slow movement consist of a set of variations on an ‘Andantino de Clara Wieck’, but the five-note descending scale with which her theme began permeated other sections of the work, too—not least the main theme of the opening movement.

It was in all likelihood the publisher Tobias Haslinger who persuaded Schumann to drop both scherzos, so that the work could appear under the catchpenny title of ‘Concert sans orchestre’. This wholly inappropriate designation was criticized not only by Liszt in his Gazette musicale review, but also by Ignaz Moscheles, to whom the work was dedicated. Haslinger’s three-movement version appeared in October 1836, but when Schumann revised the work in 1853 he issued it as a ‘Grande Sonate’. He restored one of the scherzos and also renotated the finale, changing its time signature from 6/16 to a more conventional 2/4. (The latter alteration may make the music look less forbidding on the printed page, but it does nothing to facilitate the playing of what is a fearsomely difficult piece.) Schumann also retouched the opening movement, making occasional changes to its texture, rhythm and even harmony. This is perhaps his only piano work in which the revision is patently superior to the original, and Nikolai Demidenko has generally followed it for this recording. He has, however, retained one or two features from the earlier version that are preferable—notably the sustained chord that follows the flurry of semiquaver activity in the sonata’s opening bars. The revised version has a straightforward chord of C major here, but Schumann originally wrote a discord which propels the succeeding musical argument with greater force and intensity.

The opening movement, like the finale, is in a highly personal sonata form which has been widely misinterpreted. Its opening half is continuously developmental—so much so as to render a central development section superfluous. Instead, a brief transition leads directly into a varied recapitulation which draws to a close with a climactic passage serving to launch a coda. This climactic passage is similar in both outer movements: the opening Allegro has a cascading descent from the top of the keyboard to the bottom, with the two hands alternating in toccata style (Schumann’s first edition has instead a series of descending arpeggios played by both hands in octaves); while the finale culminates in cadenza-like tremolos which appear momentarily to ‘freeze’ the musical argument.

When Schumann prepared his revised edition of the sonata he did not incorporate the scherzo that was in the home key of F minor. His decision was understandable enough—not only because the work as a whole is more convincing in its tauter, four-movement form, but also in view of the comparative weakness of this scherzo’s trio section. However, the scherzo itself, with its continuously syncopated across-the-bar phrases, is a splendid piece, and it appears on the present recording as the sonata’s second movement.

The scherzo Schumann did retain—the fourth movement in this performance—is a highly original piece. It is in D flat major, though its opening bars approach this key obliquely, with a phrase forcibly reminiscent of the theme by Clara Wieck underpinning the entire work. The trio section is in the unexpected key of D major—a semitone higher. It is permeated with distant reminiscences of the scherzo’s beginning; and when the scherzo does finally return, it grows seamlessly out of the trio’s material, with its opening phrase omitted as if it were starting midstream. The suppressed opening finally appears fortissimo in the coda to round the piece off.

The central variations (or ‘Quasi Variazioni’ as Schumann guardedly calls them) form perhaps the composer’s most perfect and beautiful sonata movement. Once again, however, it was some time before they reached their final form. Two variations included in Schumann’s original autograph were discarded before the sonata ever saw the light of day, and were first published only as recently as 1983. Schumann’s intention as to the second of these—a Prestissimo which carries the heading of ‘Scherzo’—remains unclear, as it appears between the original variations 3 and 4, and is not independently numbered. Perhaps already at this stage Schumann had decided it was superfluous; it has consequently not been included here. Nikolai Demidenko does, however, play the first of the posthumous variations, and in so doing he reverts to what was Schumann’s original sequence for the movement in its more extended form.

In issuing the F minor Sonata as a ‘Concert sans orchestre’ Haslinger hoped, as he said, ‘to whet the appetite of a more curious public’. His scheme was unsuccessful: despite the championship of Brahms, who gave the first public performance in 1862, the sonata has remained among Schumann’s least-known piano works. (If the central variations are at all familiar, it is largely because they were a favourite encore piece of Vladimir Horowitz.) That it is a problematic piece is undeniable, but it is among Schumann’s most passionate utterances, and one that deserves a wider audience.

Misha Donat © 1996

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