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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Sonata No.1 in F sharp minor, Op.11 (1835) [33:39]
Fantasie Op.17 (1836-8) [30:05]
Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)
rec. 30 AugustĖ2 September 1996, St Georgeís Brandon Hill, Bristol (Fantasie); 8-9 July 1996, Symphony Hall, Birmingham (Sonata)
EMI CLASSICS 2357412 [63:45]
Experience Classicsonline

Leif Ove Andsnes has received well deserved recognition for his recordings of music from this period, with David Barker and others highly enthused by the recent quintet recordings to which he has contributed. This coupling of the Piano Sonata No.1 and Fantasie Op.17 has been around for a while now, and this re-release is a welcome one. 

This recording was nominated for the 1998 Grammy Award for "Best Instrumental Soloist Performance (without Orchestra)", and I can hear why. Andsnes projects power and excitement in the Allegro vivace of the opening movement, and has a way with the elegant singing lines of the Aria. This movement can sometimes become something of a salon dirge, but Andsnes keeps our feet well off the ground and leads a succession of romantic colours through the imagination. Twitchy nerves infuse the quasi-dance of the Scherzo e intermezzo, the width of the keyboard and dynamics being stretched further than usual. Andsnesí Finale is more Allegro than un poco maestoso, but the dignity of the music shines through even while the hammers of the piano are being pounded for all they are worth. 

I have to admit, my main interest in this disc was for the marvellous Fantasie Op.17, and Andsnes doesnít let me down. This is one of those romantic pieces where the synthesis of art, poetry and spiritual and emotional life in general seems to come together with a feeling of inevitability and absolute logic, as if it had been in the air all the time and just needed discovering and capturing. Schumann was the one to catch this sensibility, and both he and the pianist here are uncompromising and unsentimental, demanding and delivering utmost technical quality and the kind of cathartic ride which is rarely found anywhere on record. The second movement is another tour de force, with very little standing between the listener and the cliff edge of Schumannís passionate message. This is tough stuff, but thatís what I like about it Ė mighty and distinctly unfeminine, and only macho and ĎOTTí if thatís the way you chose to respond to it. The final Langsam getragen movement may redress the balance if you feel somewhat bashed around by Andsnesí weight in the previous movements. Not quite ethereal, he does however have a sensitivity of touch which brings out the warm expressiveness in this remarkable extended song-like finale. 

There is competition in this repertoire, and both Sviatoslav Richter on EMI and Maurizio Pollini on Deutsche Grammophon are hot tickets in their recordings of the Fantasie, the latter having the same coupling with the Sonata No.1. I personally like Andsnesí direct and frank account of the Fantasie when compared with Polliniís more literal and arguably more refined accuracy. While I can respect those who prefer the latter, I would urge all Schumann fans to have a go with this recording as well. I had a listen to Alfred Brendelís 1982 Philips recording of the Fantaisie as well, but didnít prefer the rather brittle piano sound and overly free pulling around of tempi. The piano sound is full and closely detailed on this EMI disc, the Brandon Hill being a little more resonant than Birmingham but the two sessions being well matched. This is one recording which fights against banal candle-lit consumerism and demands attention, much as a live performance would. Being left with this impression after a healthily high volume airing is as good a recommendation as I can give.

Dominy Clements


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