Movement 1: Allegro
Movement 2: Scherzo e Trio: Vivacissimo
Movement 3: Andantino de Clara Wieck: Quasi Variazioni
Movement 3a: Andantino de Clara Wieck. Quasi Variazioni
Movement 3b: Variation 1
Movement 3c: Variation A
Movement 3d: Variation 3. Passionato
Movement 3e: Variation 2
Movement 3f: Variation 4
Movement 4: Scherzo: Molto commodo
Movement 5: Finale: Prestissimo possibile
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 it has been generally followed here. However, one or two features from the earlier version that are preferable have been retained—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 here 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. However, the first of the posthumous variations is played here, and thus it 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.
from notes by Misha Donat © 1996