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Robert SCHUMANN (1810 - 1856)
Complete Piano Works, Volume 4

Etudes, W.o.o. 13 (1833) [10.46]
Sonata in g Op. 22, (1838) [21.16]
with alternate finale, ‘Passionato’ W.o.o. (1835) [6.56]
Albumblätter, Op. 124 (1832-1845) [33.28]
Franz Vorraber, piano
No information on recording date or location.
Notes in German, English, French, and Japanese
THOROPHON CTH 2516 [72.26]

Comparison recordings:
Etudes, W.o.o. 13: Cyprien Katsaris, [DDD] Teldec 8.43113 ZK
Coll. piano works: Vladimir Ashkenazy [DDD] (7) Decca Collector’s Ed. 470 915-2
Kreisleriana, &c.: Vladimir Ashkenazy, [ADD][DDD] Double Decca 473 280-2
Complete piano works: Jörg Demus [ADD] (13) Nuova Era: NE 7311/23
Sonata, Op 22: Wilhelm Kempff BBC Music BBCL 4114-2

We’ve all seen the famous portrait of Schumann made late in his life after Clara had got him dressed up and starched and on his good behaviour for the photographer. But I have seen two drawings of Schumann as a college student. If I at that age had ever met him at that age I’d have run for my life. The wild fire in those eyes promised adventures, vices and risks beyond anything I could ever survive (and I’m pretty crazy myself as you’d quickly find out if you knew me). We imagine Frederick Wieck had heard some pretty wild stories and was scared to death when his daughter actually wanted to marry this monster. He shouldn’t have worried; Clara was Isis incarnate and so much of a mother that eight children, a crazy husband, and a crazy surrogate lover (Brahms) could scarcely soak up the greater part of all her motherliness.

Katsaris plays the complete manuscripts of the Etudes including, apparently, some incomplete sketches, and times out at 18:13, nearly twice as long as Vorraber. I was driving somewhere when I first heard the Katsaris recording on my car radio; at once I forgot all about where I was going and instead drove directly to the record shop and bought the CD, which remains my absolute favourite recording of any piece by Schumann. While listening at home I keep glancing into the shadowy corners of the room to make sure there are no ghosts. The Vorraber performance is admirable but does not threaten to raise any shadows. Vorraber plays only the latest of the three manuscripts, timing at 10.46 minutes. He evidently considers some of this music, which Katsaris sees as complete and worthy of performance, to be ‘unfinished,’ a curious decision to make for a ‘complete’ set, but then Demus and Ashkenazy omit these pieces from their sets entirely.

The Albumblätter are twenty miscellaneous little pieces, sounding much like other miscellaneous little Schumann pieces; the playing is precise, dramatic, and idiomatic, but at times I found it hard to keep my attention on them, even though number 17, ‘Elfe,’ is a marvel of pianistic skill. Some may prefer these rather cool performances, but I look for those uniquely Schumann passions in this music and I don’t hear them here.

The Sonata Op. 22 is more interesting and here better performed than the Op. 124, especially with the original finale added as an appendix. But while the alternate movement is interesting, it is also somewhat wayward, and you will probably prefer the final published version of the sonata. But if what we hear from Vorraber here in the first movement is truly so rasch wie möglich, (‘as headstrong as possible’) I’m crazier than Schumann was. Vorraber plays brilliantly, but rather too tastefully, without abandon. His cool brilliance is much more successful in both versions of the fourth movement. Demus plays with brilliant ferocity. Kempff plays with a just sense of ‘rasch,’ with a lurching, stumbling forward movement, musically dramatic, but without undue speed. ‘So rasch wie möglich’ is not, as some dictionaries would have it, ‘so schnell wie möglich’ (as fast as possible).

Herr Vorraber is all smiles on some of the covers in this series, but on volume 4 he looks solemnly out at us, putting much effort into looking as though hurtling himself into the Rhine is one of the things he has thought seriously about doing recently. I would not want to suggest that Herr Vorraber has no depravity in his soul; that would be a terrible insult these days, so I’m sure he is fully capable of being just as depraved as he sets his mind to be. But I doubt if he has ever travelled to that place where the birds are dead and heard the thing that yet chirpeth like a bird, whereas Schumann probably visited there most days of his life.

My favourite modern Schumann piano recording is the ADD Kreisleriana by Vladimir Ashkenazy, but until January 2003 no one had seemed to agree with me as this performance was not until then made available on CD. While I revere Jörg Demus as one of the great pianists of the 20th Century, his Schumann set is a little disappointing, mostly because of indifferent recording and a piano in need of new strings and hammers. Schumann’s music most clearly defined the goal for the developers of the modern concert grand piano, and using an ‘historic’ instrument would in this case be a mistake.

Schumann had the worst in-law problems imaginable that started years before the marriage. His fiancée’s father would scream and spit in Schumann’s face whenever they met by chance on the street. The elder Wieck repeated loudly a rumour he had heard, that Schumann was syphilitic. This diagnosis was also borne out by the attending physician at his death, but has recently been disputed. It used to be believed that Beethoven had died of syphilis, but now we know that wasn’t true. Recent discussions* have suggested that Schumann suffered from three distinct illnesses: His family suffered from an inherited tendency to mental instability and early death, and he must have known this from an early age, which would hardly have improved his morale. His father died at 52, his three brothers at the ages of 28, 43 and 48, and his sister committed suicide at 19. Robert’s dying at 46 could be seen as just what he might have expected. Also, Schumann displayed all the symptoms of bipolar disease, formerly known as manic-depressive disorder. Finally, Herr Wieck was likely correct — Schumann did have syphilis. The mercury treatments he endured prevented him from infecting his wife or children, but no doubt exacerbated his mental instabilities, and could not save him from the final onslaught of the tertiary form of the disease. It’s a pity Schumann was not successful at drowning himself after his famous leap into the Rhine; for the next two years he suffered terribly from hallucinations and delusions before death finally and mercifully released him. That a man who suffered so much was able to write anything at all is some kind of miracle, and the fact of its amazing quality makes it even more so. Music must have been for Schumann a kind of anchor that kept him at least within hailing distance of sanity.

The only happy note one can find in this story is that after his failure to stop the wedding, Herr Wieck wrote Schumann a touching letter of apology and subsequently the whole family would gather together on holidays and maintain at least formal conviviality.

Vorraber’s piano is excellent and he attains better sound than Demus. I feel that both Vorraber and Demus deserve high marks for splendid attempts but we have yet to hear a fully satisfactory complete Schumann set. In the meantime it is easy to console ourselves with the less than complete but extensive series by Ashkenazy, which also receives excellent recording, both ADD and DDD.

*Robert Schumann, The Man & His Music, edited by Alan Walker, 1972.

Paul Shoemaker

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