The relationship between Heinz Holliger and Robert Schumann
has already been explored on the ECM label in their Romancendres
CD. The connection is perhaps less well defined in this
case, though Holliger’s Partita is involved with the
‘Sphynxes’ of Schumann’s Carnaval in its fourth and sixth
Alexander Lonquich opts here to perform the original 1838 version of Kreisleriana, which Schumann later revised for a print edition of 1850. Some of the details of the changes between each version are outlined by Lonquich in the booklet, but ultimately his choice is a trade-off between the ‘more polished and well-rounded’ proportions of the later version in favour of a ‘special attraction to the fragility of the initial conception.’ Whatever the detail, it is interesting to hear this version in its pure form, rather than in adaptations that try and get the best out of both worlds. Here, the transitions between movements are made almost as important as the movements themselves, and I’ve rarely felt the piece as a single structure as much as with Lonquich’s performance. My main reference for Kreisleriana is as recorded by Radu Lupu in 1993 – a classic recording which has stood the test of time. Much as I admire Lupu, this ECM recording has started pushing it to one side ever since it came through the front door.
The first movement for instance, is always something which bothers me a little with Lupu. He hares through and glosses over those little repetitions, which I feel should have at least a hint of hesitation in them. Lonquich achieves this at pretty much the same tempo, but with a far greater willingness to allow rhythmic flexibility. Dynamic shading and warmth are also aspects in which I find Lonquich more attractive, with the character of the melody separated more effectively from the busy accompaniment in those softer passages. His singing tone in the lyrical movements is masterly, and there is a sense of harmonic depth which is as much suggested as it is played – the effect of subtle pedaling no doubt, but highly effective whatever the technique. The uneven hesitancy of the Sehr aufgeregt which opens the third movement is tactile but elusive, contrasting with the elegant melodic assurance of the slower central section. There are magical moments here and in the following Sehr langsam, which is as expressive in the lower range of the piano as in the upper melody, rather than just wandering around between registers. The control in the central section is jaw-droppingly good, transcending Schumann’s apparent dissatisfaction with the piano as a medium: he would have been amazed and transfixed by the sounds we have here. The fragmented melodic sequences in the fifth movement are done with a beautiful sensitivity of touch, the ideas bumping into each other in that ‘overheated romantic madness’ mentioned by Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich in his booklet notes. The slowness of the sixth movement is superbly sustained and almost twice as long as Lupu, whose opening melody is more of a lullaby. Lonquich is certainly more funereal, but once you’ve adjusted to his approach the logic and substance of the contrasting dramatic section becomes clear, and the other-worldly exquisiteness of the last few minutes takes us so far ‘beyond Brahms’ that it seems new worlds are opening. The Sehr rasch is rattlingly good, with a few thumps on pedals for good measure and the bass lines and harmonic substance far more present than with Lupu. The whole piece closes with a Schnell und spielend to which Lonquich gives a lightness of accent which makes Lupu seem plodding and leaden, and the central dance is ever more rousing and uplifting.
A very good Kreisleriana indeed then, and although the booklet promises that the opening of Heinz Holliger’s Partita seems to be ‘a direct continuation of the Schumann style’ there is a vast idiomatic chasm between the two composers. I was a bit naughty to take that quote out of context, and the notes go on to describe a work ‘hurled off track… as if only a thin wall had kept its latent energies from exploding in full force.’ I’m all for confrontational programming and the juxtaposition of old and new music, but I can imagine Schumann fans shying away from a CD for which they are convinced they will only ever listen to half.
Heinz Holliger’s Partita is indeed not a ‘sit back and enjoy’ kind of piece. If you are prepared to take up the intellectual gauntlet of listening properly to Kreisleriana, then a similar mental inquisitiveness should provide rewards with Partita. The two Sphynxes for Sch. for instance, appear as music suggested rather than actual – the strings of the piano barely touched, creating the effect of music filtering through great distances, or one’s own subconscious. While we’re working outwards from the centre, these two Sphynxes stand either side of a Petit “Csárdás obstiné” which, to my ears, has a rather groovy walking bass over which birdlike notes dance and sing. The second two movements are also less difficult than you might expect. II is a Fuga which develops organically in sinuous and expressive lines; III a Barcarola which also has more than a little of the Second Viennese School to its elegant atonality. The opening blast or Praeludium is a fascinating exploration of resonance, with subtle chords ringing on after being set in motion by the cataclysmic material which surrounds them. This is a tough opening perhaps, but nothing more demanding than you will have encountered in Messiaen. The final movement, an extended Ciacona monoritmica shares some symmetries of sonority with the first movement in its opening, rooting around in the lower reaches of the piano and making us work to hear the developing material. As the music advances and grows, a counterpoint comparable with the Fuga develops, building in tension and creating a remarkably powerful field of emotional electricity. This is released over a span of three and a half minutes of coda whose widely spaced notes create an atmosphere of estrangement and mystery.
Peter Grahame Woolf reported to MWI on the UK première of Holliger’s Partita for András Schiff in 2002, and pondered on how often its dedicatee might have performed it. Schiff certainly doesn’t seem to have recorded the piece, so Alexander Lonquich has the honour. ECM’s recording is excellent and the documentation well presented and beautifully designed as usual, though the introduction of actual track numbers might help without destroying the overall look. With Heinz Holliger’s Partita at last available to fans of modern music, we might even corral some new converts to Schumann with this remarkable release.