Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70 (1849) [9:09] (a and f)
Märchenbilder, Op. 113 (1851) [15:07] (b and f)
Fantasiestücke, Op. 73 (1849) [10:32] (c and f)
Marchenerzählungen, Op. 132 (1853) [15:45] (c, b and f)
Drei Romanzen, Op. 94 (1849) [11:58] (d and f)
Violin Sonata No. 1 in A minor, Op. 105 (1851) [16:50] (e and f)
The Nash Ensemble: (Richard Watkins (horn) (a); Lawrence Power (viola) (b); Richard Hosford (clarinet) (c); Gareth Hulse (oboe) (d); Marianne Thorsen (violin) (e); Ian Brown (piano) (f))
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London 12-14 July 2011
HYPERION CDA67923 [79:26]
Richard Watkins and Ian Brown open this generously packed CD with a gorgeous performance of the Adagio and Allegro, a piece which exists in alternative versions for violin, viola or cello but which is most effective on the horn. Schumann composed the work for valve horn in 1849 - the same year as his Konzertstück for four horns and orchestra. Watkins makes light of Schumann's considerable demands on the player's breath control and of the wide range - virtually three octaves.
Superb viola-players have sprung up everywhere in the last twenty years. Lawrence Power is clearly among them, though I do have small reservations. I find the beauty of his playing touched with occasional narcissism, while his tone sometimes becomes feathery and a little lacking in body; Nobuko Imai - see below - has more fibre. His dynamic range is wonderful, his technique masterly, so my quibbles simply reflect the prevailing high standard of contemporary viola-playing. The opening of the first of the Märchenbilder is justa little “perfumed” and self-conscious. Like so much of Schumann's music, this movement requires a special blend of fantasy and expressive freedom which is difficult to capture. For a quite different, but utterly magical performance of this elusive opening movement one must go to Nobuko Imai and Martha Argerich on EMI Classics. Their phrasing is the most convincing I have ever heard. Indeed, their live performance, throughout the four pieces, is so much more imaginative in every way. Their greater dynamic range produces more drama. Even these miniatures can evoke expressive worlds. Imai and Argerich search out every aspect, making this music seem greater than one had previously thought. I'm sure that a live performance often encourages more risk-taking, but it also comes down to greater artistry. In the remaining movements Power and Brown are more completely successful, the second heroic (though the viola's pianissimo in the first episode is a little “skatey”), the third fiery, and No. 4 resigned though not as poignant as it can be. For more inspired music-making I would direct you to the magnificent Imai/Argerich recording with the Piano Quintet, the Andante and Variations Op. 46, and the Fantasiestücke Op. 73.
Discs of what might be called Schumann's chamber music for middle range instruments do not usually include a violin sonata, but this slightly surprising choice is very welcome. The music of Schumann's last few years is often criticised as showing a decline in his powers, but such ideas confuse a supposed creative weariness with a change of style - more inward and sometimes elusive. Many of these later works, including most of those recorded here, are deeply characteristic. Ranking high amongst them is the First Violin Sonata. Marianne Thorsen is in a competitive field, several fine recordings of Schumann's violin sonatas having appeared in recent years. Nonetheless, her performance is outstandingly beautiful - ardent but never forced, and alive to all Schumann's changes of mood. Others may reveal more passion, but Ms. Thorsen's sweeter, more chaste approach works supremely well. This is the performance which I expect to return to most often, and not just because it is the greatest music on the disc.
The Marchenerzählungen isthe latest and the mostdifficult group to bring off. Again I feel that this performance is worthy but short on imagination. As the late John Le Mesurier said of his life: “It's all been rather lovely”, but it doesn't hold my attention. Equally, the Fantasiestücke for clarinet and piano are very beautifully played, but I am sure these pieces should be more emotionally involving.
Finally, the Three Romances are charmingly and sensitively played by Gareth Hulse and Ian Brown. Hyperion's recording and balance are natural-sounding, Richard Wigmore's notes are excellent, but Fuseli's Asssassinated Woman and the Furies is a bizarre choice for the cover.
Philip Borg-Wheeler 

An outstandingly beautiful Violin Sonata No. 1 but a good yet mixed reception for the rest. 
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