Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Fantasiestücke, Op.12 [29:13]
Kreisleriana, Op.16 [35:43]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Theme and Variations in D minor (from String Sextet No.1, Op.18 in B flat major - arr. by composer for solo piano) [10:29]
Imogen Cooper (piano)
rec. Concert Hall, Snape Maltings, Suffolk, 23-26 July 2012
CHANDOS CHAN 10755 [75:32]
Imogen Cooper established her reputation playing Mozart and Schubert. Here she performs solo piano works by another composer whose music she has been closely associated with, Robert Schumann. The works chosen for this CD are the Fantasiestücke, Op.12 and Kreisleriana, Op. 16. These are tentatively linked in that they owe their inspiration, in a sense, to the author, composer and music critic, E.T.A. Hoffmann.
The Fantasiestücke (fantasy pieces), Op. 12 dates from 1837. It is a set of eight pieces which took its inspiration from a collection of novellas entitled Fantasiestücke in Callots Manier, written by E.T.A Hoffmann in 1814. Schumann dedicated the composition to the Scottish pianist Anna Robena Laidlaw, with whom he had had a brief flirtation. The eight pieces were given their titles after composition. They are in no way programmatic, rather their titles suggest the images each conjured up for Schumann. Both here and in Kreisleriana, Florestan and Eusebius, the fictional characters, who denote the duality of Schumann’s personality, can be recognized. Florestan represents the impulsive, passionate, bold and brash side of his personality; Eusebius, the dreamy, melancholic side.
Whether or not, as some modern scientific research seems to suggest, Schumann suffered from bipolar disorder, I am not qualified to say. However, I do feel that if works by Schumann such as these are to be successful, the performer needs to be able to portray the mood changes, or the Florestan and Eusebius of the composer’s personality. With Fantasiestücke, there is great poetry in Cooper’s playing. In the opening piece Des Abends, she brings out the beautiful melody in the right hand, shaping it with elegant phrasing. I love the way she points the left hand cross-rhythms, delineating the changes of harmony. Then the mood is changed completely in the next piece, Aufschwung. Here there is real drama, but hers is contained. Argerich (EMI CDM 763576), on the other hand, seems a little wayward, throwing all caution to the wind; her Aufschwung feels rushed. In Fabel, Cooper voices the opening chords exquisitely and, in contrast, the schnell section is capricious. These contrasts Cooper sustains throughout. Some may find her performance too measured, I think she strikes just the right balance. Perhaps she does not display the formidable virtuosity of Argerich, as in the scintillating fingerwork in Traumes Wirren, which is breathtaking, but I can forgo that. I also listened to Alfred Brendel’s recording (Philips 434 732). Interestingly, Brendel was her mentor and even though I am an enthusiastic devotee, I thought the performance somewhat staid in comparison, and I did not particularly care for his piano sound.
In Kreisleriana, once again the inspiration comes from the literary work by E.T.A. Hoffmann mentioned above. Its central character Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler is disillusioned by the apathy and indifference in the way the public receives his music. Schumann maybe identified with these sentiments. He decided to name the Op. 16 set of pieces after this fictional character.
He was certainly convinced that Kreisler was based on a musician named Ludwig Bonner, whom he got to know in Leipzig. Kreisleriana, a set of eight pieces, was composed in April 1838 in the space of four days. Schumann was in the midst of a greatly productive period, working in the white heat of inspiration. Yet, all the while, he was toiling against the background of his attempts to marry Clara Wieck being thwarted by her father.
Anyone recording Kreisleriana today is up against a vast field of competition; there is an abundance of very fine recordings. As a preliminary to writing this review, this week I have listened to wonderful performances by Lupu (Decca 440 496), Ashkenazy (Decca 470 915), Kempff (DG 471 312) and Anda (Testament SBT 1069). Cooper’s Kreisleriana can hold its own in the face of this stiff competition. Her tempi are perfectly judged, with excellent phrasing and superb dynamic control. Her interpretation is poetic, as in no. 5 (sehr lebhaft) and passionate, as in no. 7 (sehr rasch). Throughout she brings out the Florestan and Eusebius character of each piece. She clearly has a great affinity with this music.
The Brahms Theme and Variations were given to Schumann’s widow, Clara on her forty-first birthday in 1860. They are based on a solemn, melancholy theme. Cooper manages to capture just the right mood, emphasizing the dark hues. Her playing has great virtuosity and is highly polished. Placed between the two Schumann works, the Variations provide a very welcome contrast.
The piano sound (Steinway Model D (579 072)) is well-focused, and the spacious, airy acoustic of the Concert Hall, Snape Maltings is an excellent complement. Nicholas Marston’s booklet notes are informative, and we get the added bonus of a personal note by Cooper, herself, who states: ‘Duality, intermingling and juxtaposing identities, the dream world, the subconscious, wild humour, the supernatural, disguise, the outsider; such is the inner world of Robert Schumann.’ It is all here.
The first volume of a projected Schumann cycle. Given this high quality I hope that there are many more to follow. An exciting prospect.
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