RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Carnaval op.9 (1834-35) [31:14]
Davidsbündlertänze op.6 (1837) [42:09]
Alessandra Ammara (piano)
rec. 8-10 March 2010, Sala Maffeiana, Verona, Italy
ARTS 47755-8 [69:22]
Much impressed by Alessandra Ammara’s recording of Giacinto Scelsi’s Preludes, I was more than enthusiastic about hearing her tackle these ‘essence of Romanticism’ masterpieces.
Given state of the art sound with an excellent piano recording, every nuance of Ammara’s performance is held up for close scrutiny, and to my ears she comes up trumps with just about every aspect of Carnaval. This is one of those edgy, almost literally schizophrenic pieces which darts between salon waltz, manic joy and tender emotion. I’ve lately been very much involved with the Eusebius and Florestan movements of this work for reasons I won’t go into here, but in many ways these two brief pieces sum up what I love about this recording. Eusebius, in its oh-so- few notes, manages to express the deepest sense of poetic sensitivity, introversion and other-worldliness. Ammara’s touch makes the notes rounded and small, almost reluctant to leave the soundboard of the piano. This is without them becoming timorous or vapidly ephemeral, conjuring more the image of a figure separate from the bustle and vulgarity of everyday life - breathing the air of flowers and gently sunlit perfection: vulnerable and untouchable, as well as with a magical power to transform the atmosphere around in an aura which is hard to forget. The alter ego Florestan is of course impetuous and flighty, but that ‘memory of a waltz’ is so beautifully placed here - a real sense of a wave of nostalgia at first putting the brakes on our hero’s sense of hectic fancy. This then of course breaks free and dances off without a care, though not without a sense of danger, to go off and dance with the Coquette.
All of these things occur within such fleeting moments, but Alessandra Ammara has clearly considered and weighed every bar, and every note in every bar, and the dimensions behind each note - all in an effective communication of Schumann’s difficult but magically narrative musical language. The Papillons flutter, the Lettres are very Dansantes, and the sense of Passionato, the spirit of Chopin and Paganini all have their own sense of individuality and strength of character, the moods portrayed and personified, the style and personality of Schumann’s idea of those colleague composers grasped and communicated to the full. There may be no such thing as a perfect recording of this piece, but if this is true then it is because the perfect performance would have to be some kind of live experience, the interaction of performer to audience creating some kind of alchemy which is impossible from a recording.
This is a performance which leaves no stone unturned, and which grips from beginning to end, and I am full of admiration for Ammara’s craft in achieving this.
Ammara almost seems to conceive the Davidsbündlertänze as a continuation of Carnaval, and in any case the programming is logical, with the former ending with the Marche des “Davidsbündler” contre les Philistins. Of course the moods of the two pieces coincide, with quotations leaping from the one to the other like fleas between livestock. Once again the quicksilver twists and turns take the listener on a convention-defying roller coaster of emotional highs and rare depths, and the performance here is both sensitive and exciting.
Comparing this recording of the Davidsbündlertänze with András Schiff’s 1995 Teldec recording highlights Ammara’s colourful and often more intimate playing. Take the fourth micro-movement, Ungeduldig, and we hear Schiff in full concert mode, exciting and loud, but having launched from a position of high impact having nowhere to go but louder and more. Ammara pulls back as much as she pushes on, and the duality of the rise and fall allows the melodic shape to remain expressive, despite some bracing and dynamic finger work elsewhere. Like Eroll Garner, her melody can seem to float on a different plane to the accompaniment, the fractional delay creating an extra layer of expressive content. For a visual comparison I am brought to Matt Groening’s animation. The sophisticated hand movements in ‘The Simpsons’ is done with the similar kind of flex and delay which Ammara applies in her Schumann melodies. You can see this effect best if you can slow down the action by thumbing through one of those flip-books in slow motion. Once you are aware of what is going on you can see it all over the place in those cartoons, and very effective it is as well.
To my mind this recording is something rather special. There are magical moments all over the place, and the richness of variety in colour, breathtaking sonorities and breadth of expression which Alessandra Ammara brings from a bunch of hammers and metal strings stretched over a plank of wood is something which remains eternally fascinating. This is of course all in the service of a rather special composer. As I grow older I find Schumann able to offer more and more in terms of a good emotional musical workout, though only with the particularly alive and closely observed kind of playing we get here. Schiff’s recorded performance is very good, and has been and remains highly regarded, but now I know why I found myself listening to it less and less. While his sensitivity and touch in the quieter movements can be poetic and elsewhere he is visceral and exciting, his dynamic extremes can be brutal and splashy in comparison to Ammara. She has no lack of contrast and can convey plenty of masculine force, but always seems to have power held in reserve: a sense that the explosions are climactic, but in terms of emotional impact rather than the kind which is more akin to a strike to the head with an aluminium baseball bat - impressive and immediate, but cold and ultimately less personal in terms of communication. If I don’t choose this as one of my discs of the year, put it down to administrative error.
Eternally fascinating and really rather special.
see also review by Gavin Dixon