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Eroica Records

Robert SCHUMANN (1810 – 1856):
Kreisleriana, op 16;
Humoreske, op 20.
Sérgio Gallo (piano)
Recorded at the Music Academy of the West, Santa Barbara, California in May, 2003.
EROICA JDT3187 [55:48]

This is the first instalment in what may eventually be a complete Schumann cycle. The pianist is new to me, although he has made at least one earlier record, and so is the record company. I must admit also that the cover in black and white wasn’t too inviting and the information on the back cover and in the – well, booklet it is not, just a folded inlay – isn’t very informative either. We learn, however, that the pianist, Sérgio Gallo, has a solid musical training, that he has performed widely, not least in the United States, and that he is Assistant Professor of Piano at the University of North Dakota.

I spent quite some time listening to Kreisleriana – both in Gallo’s version and also to a couple of recordings on my shelves – since this is a favourite piece of mine and also was Schumann’s. He dedicated it to his friend Chopin. The title refers to a story by E T A Hoffmann about an eccentric chorus master named Kreisler, and Schumann wanted to express the contrasting moods of the story in his own music, although it should not be regarded as programme music. The many shifting moods in the music, also within movements, requires a musician with a sensitive ear and a wealth of colours and nuances at his or her disposal. When I first listened to Gallo’s interpretation I thought it was all right but it didn’t go to my heart and it didn’t make me sit up in my chair, which it should. Was I negative for extra-musical reasons, like the forbidding cover? (It isn’t that forbidding after all and the drawing of Kreisler is obviously by Hoffmann himself.) I claim that I wasn’t, and when I played my two old favourite recordings I at once heard the differences. First of all my comparisons have a considerably lighter touch in several of the fast movements, more mercurial if you like, and also a more delicate feeling in the slow ones. The dramatic outbursts also often have more – drama. And then there is the question of tempo. For each of the eight movements Schumann gives not only a general indication like fast, slow, lively but he also stresses the extremes: he writes sehr (very) for the six middle movements (Sehr schnell, Sehr langsam etc) and for the first movement he writes Äusserst bewegt (extremely lively), which of course tells us that he doesn’t want a middle-of-the-road performance. And what Gallo gives us is a middle-of-the-road version. "Safe" you could say, but who is safe driving in the middle of a highway, however romantic?

My two comparisons, the still teen-aged Hélène Grimaud, recorded in 1988 (Denon) and the Vienna-based Stefan Arnold on the German Ambitus label, are both more aware of the true nature of Schumann’s instructions, Arnold even dangerously so in one or two instances; the sixth movement, Sehr langsam, is "very slow" indeed, coming close to a stand still. But both of them have a much wider scope of contrasts, Arnold the most extreme.

Looking back at my notes on Gallo’s performance, jotted down while listening, I read for example: "Powerful but not elegant", "earthbound", "energetic", "heavier". For the second movement, the longest of them and with the most beautiful melody Schumann ever wrote, the composer indicates Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch (Very sincere and not too fast), Grimaud is hushed and sincere, Arnold even more and also very flexible. Gallo, according to my notes, "not sincere, rather eager". The timings can give a clue: Grimaud takes 9:08 and Arnold even longer, 10:11, but so full of life and nuances is he that you never for a second get the feeling he is slow. Gallo, on the other hand, makes it in 7:00!

After several hours of listening my admiration for Grimaud and Arnold is unbroken. That is not to say that Gallo is bad; in his chosen concept he is perfectly valid. I feel that he tells his truth about Kreisleriana – but not the whole truth. Maybe, one day, if I want this work more down-to-earth, here is an alternative.

To my ears Sérgio Gallo is more attuned to the requirements of the Humoreske. It is also a composition full of contrasts, but it is in a way more earthbound and I warmed to this performance. "Humour" in this context "refers to mood in general" according to the short programme notes. It isn’t humorous in the traditional sense of the word. There is a lot of what could be termed as ebb-and-flow in his interpretation of this beautiful – and powerful – music.

All in all, while not quite reaching the summit in Kreisleriana, Sérgio Gallo shows a good understanding of Schumann’s idiom and the Humoreske I will certainly return to. It will definitely be interesting to follow his development as a Schumann interpreter when this cycle progresses.

Göran Forsling

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