Craig Sheppard continues to make available, through
this tiny Berlin-based label, his live recordings made, I suppose originally
on a private basis, over the past few years. The sound here is attractively
warm and sounds better if played a notch higher than I normally prefer
for domestic use. This is because it perhaps lacks something in brilliance,
or is at any rate very slightly bottom-heavy. I have an idea this may
be due to neither the recording nor the instrument but to the Meany
Theatre acoustic, so consistent has it been over this series of recordings.
I am trying to picture what kind of upholstery it may have to produce
this effect. However, I also get the impression that the pianist cultivates
warmth and mellowness and the sound characteristics are therefore probably
a fair representation of his wishes. Anyway, I quickly adjusted.
The principal offering here is the Novelletten, a 50-minute
cycle of eight pieces belonging to the same period as Kreisleriana and
Kinderszenen, that is to say the run-up period to Schumann’s marriage
with Clara Wieck, when his future father-in-law was creating every obstacle
he could think of to their union. A series of mainly fantastic pieces
whose dizzy outer sections enshrine some of Schumann’s most lovely lyrical
writing, it is not easy to say why it has not attained the same popularity
as Kreisleriana. Perhaps the title raises expectations of a series of
fairly lightweight pieces; instead, after the relatively straightforward
structures of the first four, nos. 5 and 8 in particular are unexpectedly
complex, almost miniature Kreislerianas in themselves. Even so, the
title has also sometimes encouraged lightweight interpretations; this
is assuredly not the case with Craig Sheppard, whose romantic warmth
is ever present.
It’s curious, the difference between following a performance
with a score and just sitting back and listening to it. The first time
round I had the score to hand (it’s some time since this music came
my way) and felt that at times Sheppard was too loud, even fruity, at
the start of such lyrical sections as that of no. 1, and also, in that
same section, inclined to underline excessively some of Schumann’s magical
key-changes. Rubinstein is straighter here, I must say. But when I set
the music aside and just listened I became completely caught up in the
sheer warmth of it all. This is because Sheppard is a great communicator.
His booklet notes already show an instinct for what is needed to get
across to people; they are informative but intelligible to non-musician
readers without in any way talking down to them. By the same token,
a Beckmesser with a score to hand may find a few things to object to
(not all that many, I should add) but the important thing is that the
essence of the music is conveyed. Ever phrase means something. No one
who gets this recording will go away thinking the Novelletten are either
lightweight or minor Schumann.
While Kreisleriana, Kinderszenen, Carnaval, the Fantaisie
and many other major Schumann works have all acquired a number of "classic"
recordings, no recording of the Novelletten has achieved that status.
Indeed Rubinstein, by taking just the first two to his heart, may have
unwittingly spread the idea that the others are not worth bothering
about. I much appreciate Rubinstein’s playing of the lyrical sections
of these first two Novelletten, but have never warmed to his dry, deliberate
way with the march sections of no. 1 and I prefer Sheppard who is warmer
and less emphatic. The differences in the outer sections of no. 2 are
particularly instructive. Rubinstein uses an unpedalled texture virtually
throughout and every semiquaver (16th-note) can be heard with toccata-like
clarity. This approach risks sounding dry and academic, and probably
would do so if we lesser mortals tried something similar, but Rubinstein
succeeds in shaping the melodies with romantic warmth nonetheless. However,
Schumann’s marking is "pedal", though the wretched man doesn’t
say exactly where and when we are to use it and change it. In Sheppard’s
more conventionally pedalled texture the semiquavers become just a whirl
of sound, but maybe that is what Schumann expected? Anyway, in the context
it sounds fine.
The Blumenstück is lovingly handled and Träumerei
is among the best I have heard, raising hopes that a complete Kinderszenen
might emerge later in this series. Only recently I commented, while
reviewing Ruth Slenczynska’s performance (on Ivory Classics) that only
Horowitz had succeeded, to my knowledge, in the "almost super-human
task of presenting this piece in a single melodic arch". Sheppard’s
simple tenderness shows that there is another way.
All in all this is a disc which reveals Craig Sheppard
as a satisfyingly romantic (but not egocentric) interpreter of Schumann,
and we can be grateful that he has chosen to lavish his gifts on the
neglected Novelletten rather than on more frequently-trod pastures.