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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Papillons Op.2 (1829-31)* [16:01]
Arabeske in C major, Op.18 (1837)* [6:40]
Humoreske in B flat major, Op.20 (1839)* [29:13]
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Keyboard Sonata No.36 in c minor, Hob. XVI/20** [19:36]
András Schiff (piano)
rec. dates and venue not stated: recorded 1986. DDD.
Reissues from Denon C37-7573* and C37-7801**
DAL SEGNO DSPRCD044 [71:10] 
Experience Classicsonline

The unusual coupling here brings together next year’s anniversary-boy Schumann (b.1810) with this year’s, Haydn (d.1809), on a well-filled CD, one of a series of Denon recordings which Dal Segno have licensed for reissue: Schiff appears again in a recording of Bach Keyboard Concertos with the ECO conducted by George Malcolm (DSPRCD042).

Denon originally (1986) offered the three Schumann works on their own, so the reissue is a real bargain, a fact which Dal Segno surprisingly fail to proclaim on the cover, which lists only the Schumann. Was the addition of the Haydn a late decision which caught out the design department? 

I’m very well acquainted with and approve of Schiff’s way with Mozart and Schubert, but his Schumann and Haydn had passed me by, so I was especially pleased to have received this CD for review. I was not disappointed. 

András Schiff is something of a pluralist in the works of Schumann included here: he has a version of Arabeske on a 2-CD set, Warner Maestro 2564 691731, with Kreisleriana and the Symphonic Studies; also on a budget-price CD in a multi-composer programme, Warner 2564 615882. The single-CD Warner Elatus disc of his Schumann seems to have been deleted. He couples Humoreske with the Piano Sonata, in a live 1999 recording, on a 2-CD ECM set, ECM472 1192. All these recordings, including the original Denon release of the Schumann, were welcomed on their first appearance. 

Schiff’s tempi on this Dal Segno reissue are generally a little on the slow side. His account of Papillons at 16:01, for example, is significantly slower than Sviatoslav Richter’s 14:38 on his budget-price EMI Classics Encore recording. Richter is first-rate in this repertoire and his CD made an excellent bargain, with the Fantasie and Faschingsschwank as couplings – so why does it appear to have been deleted in the UK? – but Schiff’s account stands up well in its own right. The opening might benefit from a little more energy; otherwise only the comparative timings make it seem slower than it actually sounds. The Richter is still available as a download from passionato (5752322 with the HMV logo or 5752332 with the Angel logo) though, at £7.99 (mp3) or £9.99 (flac) it’s now dearer than the CD. The German version of the CD appears still to be available for around €6 from emiclassics.de. 

Schiff’s tempo for Arabeske is a little swifter on his Warner recording – 5:49 against 6:40 – but, once again, the stopwatch tells only part of the story: I didn’t feel that the older performance was too slow. In fact, compared with Bernd Glemser’s 7:14 on Naxos (8.550715, with Piano Sonata No.2 and Nachtstücke), it’s quite fast. For many listeners Kempff’s 4-CD DG set is the benchmark for Schumann’s piano music; his 4-CD set is a real bargain at around £20 (471 312 2). Kempff takes 6:25, which is very little faster than Schiff here – in fact, I thought Schiff just a little more light and airy than Kempff. 

I have seen Schiff’s newer ECM version of Humoreske described as riper and more complex than his ‘relatively strait-laced’ Denon performance; I haven’t had a chance to hear the ECM recording, but I certainly don’t recognise the epithet strait-laced as a description of the reissued version. His time of 29:13 is not unduly slow: Kempff on the 4-CD DG set listed above, Dalberto on Warner Elatus and Sviatoslav Richter on his 1956 Moscow recording are only a little faster, though he is rather slower than, for example, Richard Goode on Nonesuch, who takes just 26:19 or Radu Lupu (25:57, Decca 440 496 2). Goode’s 1981 recording is deleted in the UK on CD but available as an mp3 download for a mere £2.49 from Amazon.co.uk. or from the Nonesuch website in the US. The Richter is also available as a download in rather fragile sound from Amazon.co.uk. 

I can’t describe Goode’s performance as sounding in any way hurried; though he is often nimble-fingered in the faster sections, he plays reflectively where appropriate – after all, Schumann did describe the work as ‘not very cheerful, perhaps my most melancholy’. Schiff is not much less nimble than Goode in the faster passages but inclined to be a little dreamier in the more reflective moments. There is room for both interpretations of this music – your choice will depend on which aspect of Schumann’s multi-faceted music you prefer to emphasise. For my money Schiff on Dal Segno achieves a fine balance between, for example, section IV, where liveliness and strength are the order of the day (Nach und nach immer lebhafter und stärker), and the simple tenderness of section V, marked Einfach und zart. Incidentally, I wish that these sections had been more clearly listed in the booklet; there is no track listing and some but not all of the markings are embedded in the notes. Better still, many recordings track the sections separately. 

Schiff has also recorded some of Haydn’s Piano Sonatas for Warner, on two mid-price Elatus recordings, one of which (Nos.59-62) was reviewed so enthusiastically by Paul Shoemaker that it prompted him to seek out the other. Unfortunately, that second CD seems no longer to be available, but the one which PS reviewed is still around (2564 60807-2 – see review). Schiff’s 1986 Denon CD included the more mature Sonatas Nos.43 and 46 alongside No.36; let us hope that Dal Segno have plans to license and reissue these, too. 

If, in the centenary year, you still regard Haydn as playing second or third fiddle to Beethoven and Mozart, try listening to some of his symphonies, string quartets or piano trios, several of which have featured in my MusicWeb International Download Roundups in 2009. The keyboard sonatas are the most neglected of all his music; what better opportunity to rectify that this year – or any year – than by starting with Schiff’s performance here, which is every bit as good as his Schumann. 

His playing here has that fortepiano-like lightness of touch which I associate with his Mozart. If he can make one of the earlier sonatas sound this well, I must investigate his Elatus recording of the later works which PS recommended. Just one caveat – I have seen this sonata described as an example of Haydn’s Sturm und Drang style, but there isn’t much evidence of storm or stress in Schiff’s performance. 

The recording throughout is truthful. The notes are helpful – and couched in more idiomatic English than I understand the original Denon to have been – but somewhat terse. Though frequent reference are made, for example, to the often abrupt mood-swings in Schumann’s writing, the terms which Schuman himself employed to explain these, his ‘Florestan’ and ‘Eusebius’ sides are nowhere mentioned. A clearer indication of who the novelist Jean Paul was and the extent to which he influenced Schumann might have been welcome. 

I’ve already complained that there is no track-listing for the sections of Humoreske. The playing time of 71:39 stated on the rear insert is a trifle optimistic: both the Dal Segno website and my player give the true time as 71:10. 

There is no shortage of good recordings of Schumann’s piano music, many of them at mid-price or less, not least the 4-CD Kempff set, but there is always room for one more of the quality of this Schiff reissue, especially when coupled with an opportunity to get to know one of Haydn’s keyboard works. When you place your order, don’t forget to add the budget-price Alto reissue of Alfred Brendel in Schumann’s c-minor Fantasie and Symphonic Studies, which I recently recommended: ALC1046 – see review.

Brian Wilson




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