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Hyperion Records

CDA67780 - Schumann: Davidsbündlertänze, Kinderszenen, Sonata No 2
Sister Emilie sleeping (c1848) by Adolph von Menzel (1815-1905)
CDA67780
Recording details: November 2009
Das Kulturzentrum Grand Hotel, Dobbiaco, Italy
Produced by Ludger Böckenhoff
Engineered by Ludger Böckenhoff
Release date: November 2010
Total duration: 75 minutes 14 seconds

DAILY TELEGRAPH CLASSICAL CD OF THE WEEK

'Here from Angela Hewitt comes a disc to make us marvel anew at Schumann's Romanticism; at his troubled and ecstatic poetry. Everything is played as in the heat of first inspiration, a reflection, perhaps, of a recreative richness mirroring Hewitt's encompassing and versatile repertoire. Few pianists are so brilliantly alive to every passing fancy and whimsicality. And again, few performances could be less studio-bound, more fleet, hallucinatory and above all more deeply imaginative … this is revelatory Schumann-playing—something to cherish' (Gramophone)

'Hewitt's awarenss of counterpoint and her skill at putting it across suits Schumann's colourfully woven textures to perfection … Kinderszenen is balanced just right: never sentimental but always touching and with a delicious sense of intimacy and fun' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Hewitt reveals a Romantic streak that is thoroughly in tune with the music … the G minor Sonata demands not only dexterity, power and finesse but also an insight into its mix of ardour and lyricism, all of which Hewitt harnesses in a performance that gloriously caps an exceptional recital' (The Daily Telegraph)

'Hewitt plays 'Traümerei with tender loveliness … [Davidsbündlertänze] Hewitt projects the varying moods very well. She incoroprates the virtuosity of the dynamic pieces into her musical characterization of them, while she sustains the mood of the inward ones … with rapt beauty' (International Record Review)

'Schumann's piano music needs a pianist with supple fingers, fluid pacing, a sense of poetry and multitudinous colours. Angela Hewitt possesses all of these and gives immensely polished performances of three jewels from the mid-1830s' (The Times)

'It's all the more interesting to hear it from the hands of one of today's greatest woman pianists … her fascinating playing of every note-from the (apparent) simplicity of 'Traümerei' in Kinderszenen to the technical and expressive complexities of the second sonata-bears out the truth of this' (Manchester Evening News)

Davidsbündlertänze, Kinderszenen, Sonata No 2
Hasche-Mann  [0'31]
Bittendes Kind  [0'46]
Glückes genug  [1'13]
Träumerei  [2'43]
Am Kamin  [0'53]
Fast zu ernst  [1'45]
Fürchtenmachen  [1'46]
Lebhaft  [1'28]
Innig  [1'43]
Mit Humor  [1'28]
Ungeduldig  [0'48]
Einfach  [2'17]
Sehr rasch  [1'49]
Nicht schnell  [3'34]
Frisch  [1'02]
Lebhaft  [1'27]
Einfach  [2'13]
Mit Humor  [0'42]
Wild und lustig  [3'26]
Zart und singend  [2'46]
Frisch  [1'54]
Mit gutem Humor  [1'10]
Nicht schnell  [2'46]
Rondo: Presto  [5'53]

Angela Hewitt has earned a richly deserved reputation for her interpretations of Bach and the Baroque, and something of that characteristic clarity illuminates her Schumann performances. Her first disc of this repertoire was praised for its ‘seemingly effortless but always adventurous interpretations … her poise and amplitude lending it an unearthly beauty’ and this second volume, containing some of the composer’s most bewitchingly beautiful music, should be no less lauded.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Reading yet again about the life of Robert Schumann, I was struck by an observation in a new biography on the composer that hadn’t previously hit home. In February 1838, in the middle of the period when Robert was forbidden any contact with his beloved Clara Wieck (the young piano virtuoso who later was to become his wife after years of opposition from her father), he wrote that he had only heard her play twice in two years. That’s not a lot. They managed to send long letters back and forth with the help of trusted friends, but moments when they could actually meet were, to put it mildly, scarce. When Clara was away on tour with her father (which happened for months at a time) it was bad enough; when she was actually home and they were in the same town (Leipzig), it was even more unbearable not to see her—or to hear her play. Music being the wonderful wordless, and thus more powerful, communicator that it is, Clara decided to go ‘public’ with her emotions, and performed, on 13 August 1837, several of Robert’s recently published Études symphoniques at a concert in Leipzig. Robert heard of her intentions from a mutual friend, and went to the concert. Clara wrote afterwards:

Did you not realize that I played it because I knew of no other means to show a little of what was going on inside me? I couldn’t do it secretly, so I did it publicly. Didn’t you know that my heart trembled? … You had to see, to feel from my playing what was going on in me.

Schumann’s reply is equally touching:

The way you played my Études—I won’t ever forget that; they were absolute masterpieces the way you presented them—the public can’t appreciate such playing—but one person was sitting there, no matter how much his heart was pounding with other feelings, my entire being at that instant bowed down before you as an artist.

Their letters were not all without conflict. If there was a long gap in their correspondence, the fear of what that might mean became a strain and produced some probably inevitable quarrels. It couldn’t have been easy for Robert, either, stuck at home wondering how he was ever going to get the money together that Clara’s father demanded as a condition of their marriage. In February 1838 he wrote rather mournfully: ‘My path is a rather lonely one, I know; no roars of applause from a great crowd stimulate my work as I go.’ Many other young couples would have given up and found someone else when faced with such obstacles; but the music was there to hold them together.

Despite such adversity, Schumann had amazing spurts of creativity. If he couldn’t see his beloved, he would at least write music for her to play. Most of the big piano works originate from 1834 to 1839, including the three on this recording. They are quite different from each other, which in a way makes it more interesting to hear them back to back.

Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood), Op 15, is of course the most well known, and beloved by all. It is initially deceptive on two fronts. At first it looks easy, but it is not at all, requiring a great mastery of touch and range of expression, and a poetic delivery. Secondly, it is not simply a collection of naïve pieces for children. When the poet and critic Rellstab (who gave the title ‘Moonlight’ to Beethoven’s Sonata Op 27 No 2) said that Schumann had set upon his piano a howling child and sought to give a realistic imitation of its sounds, Schumann angrily answered that it was a recollection of youth for adults, and that the titles had been thought of afterwards. Schumann’s childhood was far from ideal: his sister committed suicide when he was sixteen, and his father died shortly thereafter; and his mother made him study law against his wishes, finally allowing him to devote himself to music only when he was twenty years old.

Clara and Robert, when they did manage to meet, were often quite childlike in their joy. Robert wrote to her on 17 March 1838:

It was like an echo of something you once said, when you wrote to me that ‘I sometimes seemed to you like a child’—in short, I felt as though I were in pinafores again and knocked off around thirty quaint things, from which I selected twelve and called them ‘Scenes from Childhood’. You will enjoy them, but you’ll certainly have to forget yourself as a virtuoso.

The set (which in the end includes thirteen pieces) begins with Von fremden Ländern und Menschen (From foreign lands and people), whose disarming five-note theme recurs throughout the set. Kuriose Geschichte (A curious story) not only continues the expressive bass line already apparent in the first piece, but has some colourful octave doubling in the middle voice which should be brought out. In Hasche-Mann (Blind man’s buff), children vividly run around with their giggles being heard loud and clear. That opening figure is transformed into the pleas of an entreating child in Bittendes Kind which has some lovely counterpoint and ends on a question mark. Obviously the child got what he wanted because in the next piece he has found Glückes genug (Perfect happiness). In Wichtige Begebenheit (An important event) we must let the child engage in his own version of pomp, which wisely tails off at the end, allowing a beautiful transition into one of the most famous tunes ever written, Träumerei (Dreaming). I have often played this for an otherwise noisy group of school children as an example of a piece where you must be totally quiet to hear what is being said, asking them to dream something special at the same time. If ever an example is needed of how Schumann’s music must not be played metronomically in four-square bars and even beats, this is it. And what lovely counterpoint to go along with that melody.

We continue that cosy feeling in Am Kamin (By the fireside), although some fairly lively dialogue is going on as well. Incidentally, the difference in metronome markings between those of Clara and those of Robert are sometimes quite radical, and this piece is one example (Robert marks it at 138 to the crotchet, Clara at 108). The rocking of the knight on the hobby-horse is marvellously portrayed in Ritter vom Steckenpferd, with the right hand mimicking the back-and-forth movement it makes. We are back in a dreaming mode in Fast zu ernst (Almost too serious), with a syncopated melody adding to the feeling of fantasy. In Fürchtenmachen (Frightening), quite nonchalant lines alternate with threatening moments. Finally it all becomes too much for the child, and sleep comes as the cure for everything (Kind im Einschlummern), again leaving us suspended on the last chord. The adult has the final word in Der Dichter spricht (The poet speaks). There are not many endings in music as poignant as this one. Questions are asked after the initial statement, elaborated upon in a short recitative, and brought to their ultimate conclusion on a final chord which, ironically enough, demands the stretch of a tenth—something a child could never do.

In November of 1837, Clara was in Prague wowing everyone with her playing. Robert must have got his recently composed Davidsbündlertänze to her, because in a letter of 19 November, she wrote:

What makes you think that I cannot bear your Davidsbündler dances? So far I have not been able to get two hours’ peace to myself to dedicate to them, and they need that. None but I could decipher such writing.

She must have found the time in the next few weeks because on 3 March she wrote again, saying that she liked them very much but found them a bit too much like Carnaval, which she preferred. Our tastes differ: I would rather play the ‘Davidstänze’ (as Clara called them) ten times than hear Carnaval once.

The Davidsbund was, in Schumann’s imagination, a secret society formed to defeat the musical Philistines of his time, and whose goal it was to elevate the art of music to new heights. Schumann adopted the names of Florestan and Eusebius to characterize the two sides of his nature—Florestan for the impetuous, boisterous, humorous side, and Eusebius for the dreamer, the one who expressed his innermost thoughts and desires. In the original edition of the Davidsbündlertänze, he signed each piece with one or the other initials. Beneath the title, he placed an old German proverb:

Always and forever
delight and pain are linked:
remain pious in delight
and bear pain with courage.

Schumann told Clara that he was never so happy at the piano as when he was composing these pieces, and that they included many marriage thoughts (they were secretly engaged a week before he began composing the work). But this is not so much the type of happiness encountered, for instance, in Carnaval. It is a happiness that stems very much from sorrow—from having already suffered a lot, from not yet having obtained one’s greatest desires. He wrote that the work compared to Carnaval ‘like faces to masks’, meaning, it seems, that this is the real thing.

The catalogue number Op 6 is misleading and has nothing to do with when the work was composed. Robert saved that particular opus number because the Davidsbündlertänze opens with a motto from one of Clara’s compositions, a Mazurka included in her own Op 6. He revised the work the following year, changing the title to simply Davidsbündler and adding the subtitle ‘Eighteen Characteristic Pieces’. When I bought my first score of it in 1975 that was the one I happened to pick up. I do, however, incorporate a few things from the earlier version in my interpretation.

The tonal centres of the work are G major and B minor, even if the work ends in C major. Moods change rapidly, from the swirling opening (in which one needs to ignore most barlines), to the introspection of the second piece. One of the most beautiful moments for me is when the music goes into E flat major for the fourteenth piece in the set, followed by the soaring tune of the fifteenth. How can a simple descending scale over some arpeggios be so exalted and expressive? The stillness of the penultimate one, marked Wie aus der Ferne (As if from faraway), is breathtaking. Within it, the second piece makes a re-appearance in which we truly hear delight linked with pain. An accelerando, masterly done, provides a brief moment of brilliance, before falling back to end softly. Schumann could have ended the work here, but he didn’t. A slow waltz in C major concludes this most wonderful piece, with twelve low Cs in the bass imitating the clock striking midnight. In the first edition, Schumann added an inscription over this last page. ‘Quite superfluously Eusebius added the following; but in so doing, much happiness radiated from his eyes.’

During the first blissful weeks of their marriage, the Schumanns studied together all of Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Robert wanted to enlarge Clara’s knowledge of the piano repertoire, which, under the tutelage of her father, had mainly comprised virtuoso show pieces. In 1841, only a year after their marriage, she wrote: ‘The less I play in public now, the more I hate the whole mechanical world of virtuoso showpieces … [they] have become quite repugnant to me.’ At times, however, Robert took advice from Clara, whose judgement as a seasoned performer he respected. Such was the case with the Piano Sonata No 2 in G minor, Op 22. Clara wrote in 1838:

I am enormously excited with the idea of your Second Sonata; it reminds me of so many happy as well as painful hours. I love it, as I do you. Your whole being is so clearly expressed in it, and besides, it’s not too obscure.
Only one thing. Do you want to leave the last movement as it was before? Better to change it and make it a bit easier because it is much too difficult. I understand it and can play it alright, but people, the public, even the connoisseurs for whom one actually writes, don’t understand it. You won’t take this badly, will you?

Robert didn’t take it badly, and wrote another finale which he felt also went better with the first movement.

Of his three piano sonatas, the G minor is by far the most concise. It is a work of great sweep and passion, typically combining dramatic urgency with moments of rapt tenderness. Schumann doesn’t wait to get our attention—he demands it in the first bar with that sudden, broken G minor chord. The first challenge he throws at the player is to mark the opening ‘As fast as possible’, only to urge him or her to go ‘faster’ and ‘still faster’ before the end is reached. The opening theme, which is imitated in the bass, uses the partial descending scale that became Clara’s motto in many of his piano works—a ‘cry from the heart’ for her when they were unable to be together. The beautiful slow movement, marked getragen (solemn), was originally a song that Robert wrote when he was eighteen years old. The calm doesn’t last for long, though. With the Scherzo comes the one bit of humour in the sonata: in its episodes in the major mode there is certainly a twinkle in his eye. The ‘new’ finale makes extensive use of broken octaves to express its restlessness, and the Clara motto appears in the lyrical second subject. The music works up to a feverish climax and a dramatic pause over a diminished seventh chord. The ensuing cadenza goes like the wind, never once letting up. Clara certainly got what she wanted.

Angela Hewitt © 2010

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