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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Carnaval op.9 (1835) [32:11]
Kreisleriana op.16 (1838) [31:59]
Noveletten op.21 (1838): no.8 in F sharp minor [11:51]
Faschingsschwank aus Wien op.26 (1840) [22:40]
Allegro in B minor op.8 (1831) [10:00]
3 Romanzen op.28 (1839): no.2 in F sharp [03:29]
Fantasie in C op.17 (1836) [32:04]
Alicia de Larrocha (piano)
rec. June 1978, Roslyn Hill Chapel, London (Carnaval), May 1971, Decca Studios, West Hampstead, London (Kreisleriana, Allegro, Romanze, Novelette), June 1975, Kingsway Hall, London (Fantasie), November 1987, Studio No.1, Abbey Road, London (Faschingsschwank)
DECCA ELOQUENCE 476 9910 [76:09 + 68:34]    

“Carnaval” is a tricky problem for the interpreter. These tiny vignettes require pinpointing of their precise character – no time for easing your way into each new piece. By the time you’ve done that it’s gone. This is not music that can be played literally. There are rallentandos and tempo changes practically every other bar and they have to have a sense. Given that intervention is inevitable, we are going to react very personally to the performer’s decision. I thought Alicia de Larrocha started out rather slowly, even if the marking is maestoso, but then she dances away splendidly. In the first few pieces I followed with a score and saw a lot of things I would have liked differently. Then I decided to close my eyes and just listen. I found that in fact she can carry the listener with her; what look like fussy interpretative points if you watch them happening on paper sound perfectly convincing when you simply let her guide you. This is what performing is all about. I won’t say it’s the greatest “Carnaval” ever – “Pierrot” is slow and doleful, the “Papillons” are heavily-winged – but its heart is in the right place and it builds up well.
I had rather expected to find de Larrocha’s Schumann warmly reflective, more Eusebius than Florestan. Instead, the tumbling impetuosity of the seventh “Kreisleriana” piece finds her at her best and, if anything, it is a sense of inwardness I miss in this performance. The middle section of no.1 is too loud and I kept hoping, during the central part of no.3, that she would melt into liquid loveliness at last. On the other hand, she does not fail to provide hushed, intimate poetry in the sixth piece, so perhaps her intention is to make this the real heart of the performance and not pre-empt it earlier on. The final piece is grand when the music is forte but somehow lacks delicacy and impish humour in pianissimo moments. Again, a good “Kreisleriana” but not the greatest you’ve ever heard.
You won’t have heard the Novelette much at all, though I did review a fine set of all eight by Craig Sheppard some time ago (see review). At nearly twelve minutes it belies its name and is almost a “Kreisleriana” in miniature. Here de Larrocha is absolutely at her best, balancing the Florestan and Eusebius elements superbly to create a single, passionate utterance.
She is fine, too, in “Faschingsschwank”, sonorous and upfront in I, III and V, wistful and tender in the Romanze, passionate in the Intermezzo.
The “Allegro in B minor” is not a work you often hear except when somebody is recording Schumann’s piano music complete. It seems to me a fussy piece, too full of details and changes of direction to make a coherent whole. I don’t think this impression is de Larrocha’s fault. The popular “Romance no.2” is warmly done but is another case where I find de Larrocha a shade too extrovert.
The trouble with the “Fantasie” is the recording. Above mezzo forte it becomes clangy, as if the pianist is regularly going through the tone. This happens, not only in the tumult of the central march where a certain stridency could be tolerated, but in such sublime pages as the opening of the last movement. Since the recording is chronologically in between the others I am at a loss to understand this. Perhaps Kingsway Hall is not ideal for piano recordings. Maybe the size of a hall that has hosted many famous choral/orchestral recordings induced the pianist to force the tone in order to reach the back seats. Maybe the producer/engineer team of James Walker and Philip Wade, responsible only for this recording, was not sympathetic to the de Larrocha sound. Whatever the reason, I found it difficult to sit back and enjoy a performance which in any case seemed to me too middle-of-the road. This is a work where you have to live dangerously and I must say I would go for Martha Argerich here. Some find her over the top, I know. If you prefer young love to be recollected in tranquillity, go to Rubinstein or Arrau and get it in style.
So far I’ve kept away from the comparisons. But in all truth, fine as de Larrocha is in “Faschingsschwank”, Richter is pure magic. His melodies soar that little bit more, with that extra bit of expressive freedom. In “Kreisleriana” Horowitz finds an infinitely wider range of expression. Schumann is a composer of extremes and the middle way doesn’t work. I haven’t a particular recommendation for “Carnaval” but I think Rubinstein’s blend of elegance, humour and warmth will disappoint nobody. Rubinstein also offers a beautifully sung F sharp Romanze.
I’m glad to have the set for the Novelette, but that’s only twelve minutes and as a critic I didn’t have to pay for it. My advice is to get the complete “Noveletten” from Sheppard.
I found more to admire in Alicia de Larrocha’s Mozart than many of my fellow-critics. Over her Schumann I fear I must side with the majority view that outside her Spanish repertoire she is good but not supreme.
Christopher Howell




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