Apart from the piano sonatas, most of Schumannís extended piano
works consist of a number of pieces with an overarching theme.
Examples of these include Carnaval, the Faschingsschwank
aus Wien, Kinderszenen and Kreisleriana. The
title of the work alludes to E.T.A. Hoffmannís fictional poet
Johannes Kreisler, a "romantic brought into contact with
reality". The music follows the shifting moods of this
persona, providing an underlying unity to the eight extremely
varied movements. Written at the height of his courtship of
Clara Wieck, the mood of Kreisleriana is impassioned
and mercurial. The structure allows Schumann to avoid the repetitiveness
of some of his longer works, and the brilliant piano writing
and melodic invention create a rich fantasy world.
Alexei Volodin plays Kreislerianaís opening movement
quite fast and in a rhapsodic fashion; the articulation, however,
remains clear. The mid section is a little slower, and the theme
is well differentiated from the accompaniment. The reflective
melody of the second movement is well shaped; the faster sections
are more vigorous. The two-against-three rhythm in the third
movement is precisely played. In this and the following movements
one appreciates also the delicacy of Volodinís dynamic shading.
The finale is driven quite fast, but again maintains articulation;
the dotted-rhythm interjections in the left hand with are superbly
done. There is a feeling of spontaneity and fantasy about Volodinís
approach, and his tonal beauty and variety of tone colour approach
that of Sviatoslav Richter. This is a Kreisleriana with a lot
If I thought Volodiní opening movement was brisk, Jonathan Biss
is faster still; his time for this movement is just 2 minutes,
20 seconds faster than Volodin. Biss does not play the fast
sections that much faster; it is more that he does not slow
down in the contrasting sections as much as Volodin. This points
to a basic difference in these two interpretations, Biss being
more classical than Volodin. The rest of Bissís timings were
quite similar to those of the Russian pianist. I still feel
that the Biss recording is one of the best recent Kreislerianas,
played with just the right combination of passion and tenderness.
However Volodin gives a very fine reading too; he achieves a
greater tonal variety than Biss, and his rhapsodic approach
suits the music well.
Like Kreisleriana, Ravelís Miroirs comprises a
number of relatively short movements. Each has a distinctive
title, and each creates a self-contained musical mood or situation.
Some of these are descriptive or imitative, like Oiseaux
tristes or Une barque sur líocťan, while others such
as Noctuelles concentrate on musical techniques such
as chromatic harmonies. Ravel later orchestrated Une barque
sur líocťan and Alborada del gracioso, and as a result
they are probably the best known of the five. Miroirs is
not quite as virtuosic as Ravelís later piano work Gaspard
de la nuit, but it still bristles with difficulties, particularly
in the Spanish-flavoured Alborada del gracioso.
Volodin plays the skeletal opening of Noctuelles in a
mysterious fashion, adding colour as it builds. His performance
is distinguished by wide dynamic contrasts, sensitive pedalling,
and beautiful colouration. Volodinís phrasing captures the motion
of the waves in the Barque, and the climaxes are well shaped.
Alborada del grazioso is brisk but his articulation remains
clear; the repeated notes are very even and varied in tone.
The improvisatory manner of the Vallťe des cloches unfolds
with great sureness, fading away at the misty final cadence.
Ravelís impressionistic piano writing allows Volodin to show
off an even greater range of tone colours, and his technique
is more than up to this workís challenges.
Werner Haas was a student of the great Debussy interpreter Walter
Gieseking. His Philips set of the Ravel piano works dates from
the 1970s, but still sounds well. His approach to Miroirs
is a little firmer and less spontaneous than Volodinís.
The Barque scuds along to a stiffer breeze; Alborada
del grazioso is more deliberate, but the rhythms still dance.
The treble lacks the ring of Volodinís digital recording, although
the piano recording is very natural.
Volodinís program concludes with the Sonata no. 5 by Scriabin.
This piece was written around the same time as the Poem of
Ecstasy. It consists of one tumultuous movement, which seems
never to settle harmonically, being a sort of free fantasia.
The writing is reminiscent at times of Ravel and Rachmaninov,
wrapped in Scriabinís mystical harmonies. Volodinís performance
is virtuosic and sensitive to the continuously unfolding vistas
of Scriabinís very personal style. Sviatoslav Richterís 1963
recording knocks about 45 seconds off Volodinís time; it sounds
a bit scrabbly at the very beginning, but this is an incendiary
performance with some extraordinary sonorities.
This disc reveals Alexei Volodin as a thoughtful and versatile
artist as well as a pianist with a fine technique.