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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
The Complete Piano Works, Vol. 11

Novelletten, Op. 21 (1838)
"Geister Variations" on a Theme in E flat (1854)
Franz Vorraber, piano
Recorded Kloster Kreuzburg, Germany, July 2002
THOROFON CTH 2523 [70:41]


Comparisons:
Novelletten – Schiff/ECM, Zacharias/EMI
"Geister Variations"- Nikolayeva/Melodiya

Reviewers sometimes recommend recorded performances with the caution that they not be considered one’s only version to own. This sums up my feeling about Volume 11 of Franz Vorraber’s traversal of the complete Schumann piano works in his 13-disc series on Thorofon. From this volume and the others I have heard, Vorraber has definitive concepts about Schumann’s music, and they change according to the specific work he performs.

Let’s turn to the music itself. Schumann’s Novelletten, although written in the same year as his hugely popular Kinderszenen and Kreisleriana, does not possess an equal amount of inspiration. Specifically, only the first two of the eight movements match the artistry that we expect from the Schumann piano repertoire. As a result, these two movements are often recorded and performed at concert recitals, while the remaining six movements remain untouched.

Vorraber’s approach to the Novelletten is aggressive, heavy, abrupt and sharp. Christian Zacharias, also abrupt and sharp, conveys much more excitement and less aggressiveness than Vorraber. Turning to the András Schiff version, the poetry is at a higher level than Vorraber musters. It is the aggressive disposition that most informs Vorraber’s performance, and I feel a little beat up after listening to it. However, Vorraber brings some admirable and idiomatic qualities to his performance. The detail he offers is quite impressive, and the abrupt/sharp phrasing is well in line with Schumann’s sound world. What I miss most is the lack of conveying any irrational elements that surely are an integral part of Schumann’s musical psychology. Vorraber unfortunately always sounds focused and in control, apparently unwilling to take the wild or disoriented paths at any point in the eight movements.

Schumann wrote his "Geister Variations" just a few weeks before attempting to commit suicide by throwing himself into the Rhine and then being placed in a sanitarium in Endenich. Consisting of a theme with five variations, this work is infrequently recorded for a couple of reasons. First, the theme is one that Schumann had previously used in his String Quartet in F major, Violin Concerto, and the song "Frühlings Ankunft". Second, the variations do not stray far from the basic theme.

Listening to Vorraber play the "Geister Variations", you wouldn’t know he is the same pianist who pounds his way through the Novelletten. His tempos, except for the fifth variation, are extremely slow; although Tatiana Nikolayeva’s rather patient reading takes over 12 minutes, Vorraber extends the work to almost 15 minutes. The result of Vorraber’s leisurely excursion is a very solemn presentation somewhat similar to a funeral dirge. I do find the interpretation effective, and it certainly conveys a reasonable assessment of Schumann’s state of mind at the time of composition and his imminent demise.

The soundstage tends to be bass-heavy and rather claustrophobic. Further, the tuning in the middle registers of the Bösendorfer Piano is far from perfect. Yet, these conditions do not deter from enjoying the fine detail of Vorraber’s playing, and his respective approaches to each of the programmed works come through clearly. Essentially, Vorraber overcomes his soundstage.

Although there are hundreds of Schumann piano discs in the catalogs, the only other compete series is from Jörg Demus on Nuova Era. The Demus performances are excellent, but the sound quality is far from stellar. I think it is fair to say that most readers would prefer Demus who is the more mainstream interpreter. However, Vorraber has much to impart to Schumann enthusiasts with his distinctive interpretations. For those who want a taste of his way with Schumann, I recommend beginning with one of the volumes having Schumann’s more popular works such as Volume 7 which contains Kinderszenen and the Davidsbündlertänze.

Don Satz



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