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CD: Crotchet

Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Davidsbündlertänze Op.6 (1837) [33:49]
Three Pieces from Album für die Jugend Op.68 (1848) [7:44]
Fantasie in C major Op.17 (1836) [31:13]
Stephen Hough (piano)
rec. 1989
VIRGIN CLASSICS 6994702 [73:10]
Experience Classicsonline

This disc is a budget reissue. The original, with some creepy Petrushka on 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.

Davidsbündlertänze (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.

Oleg Ledeniov 



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