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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Novelletten op. 21, Blumenstück op. 19, Kinderszenen op. 15: 7. Träumerei
Craig Sheppard (piano)
Recorded live at the Meany Theater, University of Washington, Seattle, 23.10.2001 (op. 21), 02.03.2000 (others)
AT 02-01114 [60:26]

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For information and sales write to Annette Tangermann, Friedenstrasse 16, D-14109 Berlin, at-label@gmx.de



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 Schumannís 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 Schumannís 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.

Itís 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 (itís 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 Schumannís 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 Rubinsteinís 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, Schumannís marking is "pedal", though the wretched man doesnít say exactly where and when we are to use it and change it. In Sheppardís 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 Slenczynskaís 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". Sheppardís 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.

Christopher Howell

 



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