Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Grand Sonata op.121 for violin and piano (1851/52) [34:40]
Sonata op.105 for piano and violin (1852) [18:13]
Sonata in A minor WoO 2 (1853) for violin and piano [23:02]
Ensemble Villa Musica: (Nicolas Chumachenco (violin); Kalle Randalu (piano))
rec. 23-24 November 2009, Ackerhaus der Abtei Marienmünster

There is no big announcement or list of planned releases documented here, but this is labelled as ‘Schumann: Chamber Music vol. 1’, so we can hope for a nice juicy series from MDG to follow.

Schumann’s violin sonatas are somewhat in the shadow of many of his other works, but they do have plenty of the characteristics which give his work its appeal and deserve plenty of recognition. The programme here begins with the Grand Sonata op.121, which Schumann was working on while negotiations for the publication of the Op.105 sonata were in progress. After Schumann’s death the work was tarred with the brush of prejudice, seen as the product of an increasingly diseased mind and too extreme to be anything other than a failure in performance. Listening today one can hear the striking sense of original thinking in this piece, which, while perhaps less thematically memorable, is certainly a match and a challenge for Brahms’ compositions in this genre. The first movement is nearly quarter of an hour of unrelenting intensity, with all of the rich pianistic writing which makes this piece a true duo and not merely a violin work with piano accompaniment. The central two movements are more compact, the Sehr lebhaft keeping up the demanding nature of the first movement with further dark harmonic brooding. The following Leise, einfach, lightens the mood a little as promised, with the pizzicato violin being stalked by a stealthy piano, an opening section which turns into a gorgeous set of variations. The final movement Bewegt is a dramatic but triumphant statement whose rondo form has a remarkable cumulative effect.

The Sonata Op.105 is closely related in terms of period to the Op.121 sonata, and has a similarly vital sense of intense inventiveness and emotional inventiveness. The mention of the piano before the violin in the title is no mistake, and not unique in this genre, following in a line traceable to Mozart and Beethoven. This equality of status between the instruments is a further crystallisation of those earlier examples, and Schumann’s contribution is rightly pointed out in Joachim Draheim’s booklet notes as a forerunner to the romantic heights of the later 19th century with the works from Brahms to César Franck and beyond. Thematic connections are present throughout the Op.105 sonata, but whether these come across subliminally or with intellectual directness the actual music is filled with charm, especially the Allegretto central movement, which is like a cinematic panning shot between various conversations. The final movement can be seen as a gesture in Bach’s direction, but also has plenty of dance-like energy to go with the imitative counterpoint.

To conclude there is the Sonata in A minor, which was originally a collaborative effort in which Schumann was joined by the younger Brahms and his protégé Albert Dietrich, resulting in the so-called ‘FAE–Sonata’. Dietrich was responsible for the first movement, Schumann for the Intermezzo and Finale, Brahms contributing the penultimate Scherzo. Schumann began replacing the other composer’s work, and while it is not entirely clear from the booklet notes this is now entirely Schumann’s own work. Hindsight and knowledge of this work’s history can lead one to blithely apply words such as ‘flawed’ or ‘uneven’, but even as Schumann’s powers waned his natural gift as a composer and personal individuality of style are still potent and present, wiping a myriad of lesser and entirely healthy composers off the board.

There is a deal of distinguished competition in this repertoire, though with a read of the review I am confident this recording with Ensemble Villa Musica is more attractive than that with Alberto Bologni and Giuseppe Bruno. Carolin Widmann and Dénes Várjon on ECM are perhaps more realistic competitors, though tastes with regard to recording perspective may influence the choice here. This MDG disc has a very nice balance, perhaps a little more piano relative to the violin might have been preferred, but then the risk is run of the recording becoming too heavy with the weight of notes coming from the piano part, so this is not really a criticism. Both Nicolas Chumachenco and Kalle Randalu play with superb musicality, showing plenty of light and shade, a deep sense of commitment and communication. The recording itself is clear and direct, without being too close, the relationship between instruments and acoustic is ideal. With Schumann, my feeling is always that the ‘bravura’ is in the essence of the music, and too much extra ladled on by the players – pianist in particular – is something which will render the bigger-boned movements too hectic. This is most certainly not the case here. I admire both performers’ sympathy with Schumann’s idiom.

Dominy Clements

Superb musicality, showing plenty of light and shade, a deep sense of commitment and communication.