Symphonic Etudes - Okashiro/Pro Piano, Brand/APR,
Richter/BBC, Schliessmann/Bayer Phantasie - Arrau/Philips, A.
Fischer/BBC, Richter/EMI, Horowitz/Sony
Bernd Glemser, a frequent pianist for Naxos, has already
recorded the three Schumann piano sonatas and received favorable
reviews. Now he is putting on record two of Schumann's masterful
piano works written when the composer was at the height of his
musical inspiration in the 1830s.
As with most of his piano works containing varied miniature
pieces, Schumann kept re-working his Symphonic Etudes until
he made the final revision in 1852 that had an opening theme
and twelve etudes/variations. Quite a few pieces were discarded
along the way, and Johannes Brahms eventually added five of
them to the work as an appendix.
The treatment by pianists of these five posthumous variations
is very interesting and definitely impacts the symmetry of the
Symphonic Etudes. Without the posthumous variations, the work
tends to be slanted toward Schumann's alter-ego Florestan (the
man of action). Given that the posthumous variations favor Schumann's
other alter-ego Eusebius (the man of reflection), their inclusion
in the work can balance the Florestan-Eusebius musical arguments.
How do pianists treat these five posthumous variations?
Some leave them out of the work, but this approach denies listeners
the opportunity to hear some wonderful music. Another approach
is to append them to the end of the work as indicated by Brahms;
the problem here is that no attempt is made to balance the Schumann
alter-egos, and the five posthumous variations simply sound
like isolated encore pieces. A third method used by some pianists
is to place them together in the middle of the work, an approach
I consider to be rather thoughtless and without musical merit.
The approach I prefer is to strategically place each
posthumous variation in the body of the work with the intent
of maximizing musical contrast and architectural sweep. This
is how Glemser treats the challenge, and he is fully successful.
In fact, his entire performance is highly enjoyable. He gives
the Florestan character great confidence, exuberance, and power
as evidenced by the menacing initial theme of Etude 1, the wild
and impetuous Posthumous Variation 1, the desperation of Etude
2, the fierce determination of Etude 6, and the phenomenal energy
of Etude 10.
Eusebius and his musical arguments with Florestan are
also well presented. Prime examples are the playful nature of
Etude 5, the inquisitive and pleading declarations of the Posthumous
Variation 4, and the mystery of Etude 11. Particularly rewarding
is the delicious tickling of the keys in the Posthumous Variation
5; Glemser's performance is as gorgeous and nostalgic as any
in the catalogs.
Overall, Glemser's Symphonic Etudes is excellent. It
may not scale the heights as do the comparison versions in the
heading, but Glemser is not far behind and the super-budget
price is certainly advantageous.
Alas, much of the allure of the disc is diminished with
Glemser's performance of the Phantasie in C. Unlike the Symphonic
Etudes, the Phantasie consists of three large-scale movements
primarily concerned with Schumann's love for Clara Wieck and
the desperate state of his emotions when her father would not
allow Schumann to see her. The 1st Movement revolves around
Schumann's great passion for Clara, and Glemser conveys only
a trace of it compared to the outstanding version from Annie
Fischer. The 2nd Movement takes the form of an intense and exuberant
march, Glemser again missing the mark through what seems like
a reticence to really dive into the music. He does improve considerably
in the 3rd Movement love song to Clara, but it's too late to
rescue the performance. Throughout the disc, the soundstage
is very good and clear although there is some congestion in
the strongest attacks.
Given a Phantasie in C that is not up to snuff, the best
I can do is give the new Glemser disc a mild recommendation.
Even at super-budget price, half a disc of excellent music-making
does not make for an attractive recording. I suggest that readers
investigate the superb discs listed in the heading, each of
which is far superior to the Glemser offering.