b>Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Humoreske Op.20 (1839)
Einfach. Sehr Rasch und leicht [6.16]; Hastig [4.55]; Einfach und zart. Intermezzo [4.55]; Innig [2.49]; Sehr lebhaft. Mit einigem Pomp [3.29]; Zum Beschluss [6.49]
Fantasiestucke Op.12 (1837)
Des Abends [3.40]; Aufschwung [3.06]; Warum? [2.46]; Grillen [3.12]; In der Nacht [3.49]; Fabel [2.36]; Traumes Wirren [2.19]; Ende vom Lied [4.48]
Emanuel Ax (piano)
rec. October 1981, RCA Studio A, New York City
NEWTON CLASSICS 8802084 [55.29]
Emanuel Ax recorded these early Schumann masterpieces more than thirty years ago. In these performances he demonstrates all the qualities that have made him such a consummate all-round performer and musician. He displays enormous variety of tone not to mention his refined and elegant phrasing and rubato. There’s also that superb technical ability and digital articulation when required.
He starts with the Humoreske which was composed when Schumann was embroiled in legal battles with his intended father-in-law over his wish to marry Clara. The term Humoreske denotes sudden changes in mood and is more a reference to ‘humours’ than humour. In general terms Ax is better in the lyrical sections representing Eusebius than in the fiery mania of the Florestan passages. Those quicksilver changes of mood are not always convincing here. A gorgeous tone is conjured from the Steinway in the dreamy opening and the melody is delineated with great sensitivity and refinement. The ensuing sehr rasch und leicht section is played with rhythmic vitality and flair. I am not entirely convinced that Ax captures the underlying sense of unease in the second section or the mercurial quality underpinning the sudden mood-changes. The third section is very well executed while the Innig fourth section is played with evident warmth and humanity. Some of the playing in the penultimate section is extremely fine but I would have liked to hear more of the possessed and unbridled elements that one finds in other performances - compare Lupu. The phrasing in the final section was immaculate with Ax relishing the rich harmonies. While there is admirable playing here - one expects nothing less - it was a rather mixed event.
I preferred Ax’s interpretation of the Fantasiestucke set which, for my money, was played with much greater musical insight and imagination. These eight short pieces were composed two years earlier than the Humoreske. They were inspired by Schumann’s admiration for the author E.T.A. Hoffmann. Des Abends is played with poetic sensibility. The figurations unfold naturally and with grace. There’s vigour and drive in Aufschwung which is allowed to soar with energy coursing through some of the figurations. In Warum? Ax uses the cross-rhythms to quicken the pace and deftly brings out its questioning nature. There’s an authoritative Grillen in which artful rubato lays bare the whimsical and quirky nature of the piece. It’s wonderfully characterised. In der Nacht was a little too neat and tidy and Ax was only partially successful in conveying its highly atmospheric qualities. The whimsical narrative at the heart of Fabel is beautifully conveyed while the whirling figurations of Traumes Wirren are dispatched with virtuoso élan. Schumann described Ende vom Lied as a combination of wedding bells and funeral bells. Ax gives it muscularity and invests the huge chords with a radiant tonal warmth. That said, I was not persuaded that he completely captures Schumann’s residual anxiety at the end. There have been many great performance of Fantasiestucke - Richter is absolutely outstanding as is Leon McCawley in his more recent recording - and I am not sure this one is up there with the very best. Nevertheless it contains some rewardingly excellent playing.
Robert Beattie 
Rewardingly excellent playing.