This disc is a budget reissue. The original, with some creepy Petrushka
the cover, was issued as part of the Virgin Ultraviolet series
in 1995. I admit with shame that I saw the other disc on store
shelves but Petrushka always scared me away. The new cover is
a collage, kitschy but positive.
(Dances of David’s
Camp or David’s League) sequence is a good example of Schumann’s “compressed
genius”. It is so characteristic of the first half of his
creative work, before his inner illness began to take over. It
is a cycle of eighteen miniatures, where each minute seems to
contain more ideas than some other composers have in a sonata.
The melodies are mixed with a generous hand and thrown at you
like confetti, as if the composer was a giant machine generating
musical ideas, all new, all glittering.
The general character of the cycle is more lyrical than that
of its twin, “Carnaval”. After all, these are dances
though dances more suitable to a ballet than to a ballroom. Indeed,
we will hear their echoes half a century later in Tchaikovsky’s
ballet scores. The dancers here are Davidsbündler
members of David’s Camp. The biblical David fought the
Philistines, which Schumann associated with philistines in art:
inert, hypocritical, foes of anything new. Consequently, David’s
followers in Schumann’s world were “the good guys”:
innovators, revolutionaries, genuine romantic heroes. Two of
them became Schumann’s alter egos: the dreamy, quiet Eusebius
and the passionate, impetuous Florestan. They share between them
the numbers, appearing in turns or together. Eusebius is lyric,
introvert, sometimes melancholic, while Florestan is extrovert
and fiery. All parts are highly poetic.
Stephen Hough’s interpretation is excellent. The voices
of Florestan and Eusebius are distinct. Even the thickest textures
are transparently clear. The piano sound is full and round, very
beautiful. Tempi tend to be on the quick side, especially in
the Florestan parts. This leads to my only disappointment: in
No.16 where the parallel syncopated runs are a mess. As if to
make up for this, the following No.17 is absolutely magical.
And Schumann’s voice shines through every note.
The three pieces that Hough pulled out of the vast collection
which is the Album for the Young
are essentially songs
without words. The third (No.30) is an especially beautiful example
of Schumann’s “evening music”. They may be
not characteristic of the Album
, but their pensive softness
creates an ideal balance for the disc’s program, serving
as a separator between Florestan’s pirouettes and the thunderous
bravura of the great Fantasy in C.
When Horowitz included the Fantasy Op.17 in his Carnegie Hall
return recital, he gave a simple explanation: “Because
it is so beautiful”. It is also grandiose. And tender.
And ecstatic. And sensitive. It is very multi-faceted. Each one
of the three parts poses its problems to the performer. In the
first, he has to overcome the fragmentary structure, to make
it work and make sense, instead of just being a cinematographic
sequence of fantasy images. It can easily fall apart. The second
movement, a galloping Florestan in his merriest mood, tends to
become too ruminative, and can outstay its welcome. Some pianists
hurry to get through it. Finally, the third movement, in a quiet
Eusebian mood, has heavenly length
, so there is a task
to support this long-stretched arch without losing the listener.
In my opinion, Hough passes all these tests with marvelous confidence.
In the first part, he leads you from one wonderful image to another,
while maintaining the feeling of the overall structure. He manages
to make the second part interesting without rushing through it.
He does not deepen the shadows unnecessarily in the last part.
In Hough’s hands, the closing Langsam
is a walk
on Elysian clouds. While it lasts, you forget about the time.
And when it’s over, you long for more.
The recording quality is first class, catching all nuances of
the piano sound. Pianissimos have body and fortissimos have beauty.
The liner-notes, in French and English, are regrettably very
minimal. Apart from it, this is a wonderful disc. Not all Schumann’s
piano works can be combined on a disc, but this program is very
well balanced and leaves you in high spirits and poetic mood.
As your first, or fifty-first Schumann disc, this is a good one.