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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Fantasiestucke Op. 12 * [27.17]
Papillons Op. 2 ** [11.34]
Etudes Symphoniques Op. 13 *** [25.52]
Friedrich Gulda (piano) *; Ingrid Haebler (piano) **; Nikita Magaloff (piano) ***
rec. Op. 12, Feb 1984; Op. 2, Aug 1959; Op. 13, 1960. DDD/ADD
PHILIPS ELOQUENCE 470 6662 [64.49]

The Fantasiestücke played by Friedrich Gulda opens with an extremely slow and reflective performance of Des Abends. The accompanying figures are a little obtrusive and occupy the same sound-space as the melody, instead of being recessed. Others including Rubinstein project a better singing line at a faster tempo while Cortot conjures a heady atmosphere from the exotic evening air.

Aufschwung enters with an explosion, the dynamic difference so huge as to point perhaps towards doctoring of the recording. This is powerful but harsh playing. On the other hand, listen to Argerich and hear how much more variety of tone can be found. In Warum Gulda captures the questioning character of the piece but fails to grasp the structure the way Richter or Rubinstein do. A lack of Schumannesque impulsiveness makes it sound more like Chopin. Grillen is square and rigid, and Schumann’s marking ‘mit Humor’ goes undetected.

In der Nacht is presented too brightly with too much etched detail. Where is the shading, the mystery, the darkness? One hears every note, but surely that is not the idea here. This is partly the fault of the close recording. In Traumes Wirren Gulda’s quirky rhythmic effects remind one of Gershwin, while Ende vom Lied begins in a heavy-handed and monotonous way. This should be exalted music. Instead there is little phrasing or flow to the performance. In the end, despite some robust and exciting playing - and a serenely calm Des Abends - I found myself wanting more ‘Fantasy’.

Moving on to Ingrid Haebler in Papillons brings no greater bounty. The sound is good for the year, certainly more comfortable to listen to than in the much later Gulda. But this is a rushed and forceful Papillons, lacking colour and freedom. Occasionally one hears real beauty of sound and flexibility of phrasing - as in the second half of No.7 - which shows what Haebler was capable of. There’s also some wonderfully fleet-fingered playing (as in No.9), but much of the time this reading disappoints.

Why, for example, in the second themes of Nos. 6 and 10 (the same theme), does she skip a beat just before the repeat? Other peculiarities include the subito prestissimo rather than the marked accelerando in No.4, and the rushed unlyrical playing of No.5.

Haebler manages to make No.11 sound like a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody, while the Finale has none of the grandeur that should be so obvious in the music. The wit and ingenuity of the final page are lost – Schumann’s successive shortening of the fragmented melody by one note each time is far better characterised by Richter. In fact Richter (on EMI) says much more with much less. In No.4 he is similarly presto but with an elasticity and sweetness missing from the icy Haebler. In her fortes, all is grey and unvaried. Richter (or Horszowski on BBC Legends) play with so many different shades.

In her defence, her performance improves around halfway and what impresses is the sure-fingeredness and clarity of articulation, as well as the way she captures Schumann’s schizophrenic changes of mood. But for this reviewer the playing is too often mechanical, unromantic and uncolourful.

In Etudes Symphoniques, one of the greatest keyboard masterpieces, Nikita Magaloff gives us a wonderfully limpid and subtle performance, occasionally restrained but extraordinarily beautiful. Here is the pliant warm keyboard sonority missing from the other performances on the disc. The sound is not as clear as it might be but is respectable enough for its age.

The Theme flows wonderfully, while the 1st and 4th Etude sound remarkably unforced and natural. Listen to the wonderfully tender echoes at 1’03" in the 2nd Etude, the way the music is given space to breathe. A slight disappointment comes at the start of the 5th Etude when Magaloff doesn’t quite maintain the previous Etude’s tempo. The 6th Etude should be more agitato, but what gems the performances of the two supplementary Variations turn out to be. A warning here that only Variations IV and V are included. Magaloff doesn’t quite find enough tonal variety or sense of structure in the 8th Etude, and the 10th Etude could catch fire more. One can’t help feeling that with an extra dose of adrenaline, perhaps in a ‘live’ setting, any such reservations would be silenced. The 11th Etude is coloured and layered exquisitely, with a truly murmuring accompaniment, and a cantabile but not over-projected melody – so beautiful, tender and sad. In the Finale, listen to the way Magaloff is subtly flexible with the tempo, while maintaining all the clarity of the dotted rhythms. That said, a degree of passion is missing in the main subject. Be aware: many of the repeats are not observed. Despite these various reservations there is something truly special about this performance.

For the ultimate combination of Eusebius and Florestan, and an architectural grasp of structure, I would urge you to turn to Richter. He also includes all five supplementary Variations.

The booklet notes by Raymond Tuttle are very good concerning the programme, but offer nothing about the artists or the provenance of these (presumably studio) performances. This is a real disappointment given the rarity of these recordings.

Alex Demetriou



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