Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Variations in E flat Major “Geistervariationen”
Andreas Staier (piano: 1837 Erard)
rec. Teldex Studio, Berlin, February 2013
Full track details at end of review
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC902171 [59:52]
This disc promises a great deal, opening as it does with Schumann’s first published work, the Variations on the name Abegg. It ends with his final completed piece, the Variations in E flat Major, the so-called ‘Ghost Variations’. These two sets of variations sandwich the two sets of Fantasiestücke. It is a shame that Staier did not choose to include the supplement to the Op.12; there was plenty of space left.
The Abegg-Variationen op.1, or as Schumann described it in a letter to his mother, his “fine healthy child”, dates from between 1829 and 1830. It has led to much conjecture concerning the work's dedicatee. Just who is the Countess Pauline (Meta) von Abegg? The answer is that no one really knows. An early biographer of Clara suggests that the title was a ruse, and that Meta was actually engaged to Schumann’s friend. Eric Sams has suggested that ‘Meta’ was merely an anagram of ‘tema’ or ‘theme’. Whoever she was, no one can deny that the work, which consists of a theme, three variations, a cantabile and a final fantasy, is a remarkable Op.1.
Schumann was extremely well read and he liked to compose music inspired by literary characters he had read about, with the Fantasiestücke op.12 offers the listener a series of eight ‘fantasy pieces’ based on the writings of one of his favourite authors, E.T.A. Hoffmann. The open with the beautiful tender Des Abends, which introduces us to Eusebius. This is followed by Aufschwung in which we meet Florestan. These two characters are a significant presence in many of the composer's works. As mentioned above, it would have been nice to have had the ninth piece, known as the supplement to op.12. It only lasts about three minutes and it would have meant that all the composer's Fantasiestücke were included. The op.111 set dates from 1851 and follows on from two of Schumann’s mature masterpieces, his Third Symphony Rhenish and the Cello Concerto. There are only three pieces in this set. It is clear that they were intended to have been performed as a whole by the way that he wrote “attacca” at the end of the first and second.
The Variations in E flat Major Geistervariationen are Schumann’s final work. They were composed around the time of his final madness. It has even been suggested that the distinct change in the handwriting of the manuscript score points to the work having been completed after his suicide attempt. There are differing accounts as to how the Theme came about, the usual being that an angel dictated it to Schumann. One of his friends stated that Schumann had told him that it was the ghost of his beloved Schubert who had dictated the melody to him. It is good that this recording gives the theme and each of the five variations a separate track. The other recordings I have band them together as a single track.
Although I greatly admire the German pianist and harpsichordist, Andreas Staier, and own a number of his very fine recordings, this recording does not quite come up to the mark. Whilst there is no doubting Staier’s ability, he is as technically adept as ever in this recording, his performance lacks a little something. Being brought up on the likes of Peter Frankl, Wilhelm Kempff, Alfred Brendel and Jörg Demus, I miss their Romanticism. There are some more modern performers I also admire, with the likes of Vladimir Ashkenazy, Imogen Cooper and Martha Argerich all having excelled in this music. It is not the fault of the chosen piano either. The Erard, which dates from the same year as the Op.12, 1837, sounds wonderful. Even ardent admirers of large modern grands will find a lot to enjoy here. Perhaps the issue lies with the historically informed sensibilities that Staier brings to the table. All I know is that for me this playing does not work quite as well as it might. I am not saying that this is a bad recording; on the contrary it is very accomplished. I dare say that many a listener will enjoy the performance but after many a repeated listening it is just not for me.
Full track details
1. Tema. Animato [1:00]
2. Variation I [0:57]
3. Variation II [0:59]
4. Variation III [1:05]
5. Cantabile Non troppo lento [1:29]
6. Finale alla Fantasia. Vivace [2:45]
7. Des Abends [3:33]
8. Aufschwung [3:29]
9. Warum? [2:25]
10. Grillen [3:38]
11. In der Nacht [4:04]
12. Fabel [2:40]
13. Traumes Wirren [2:44]
14. Ende vom Lied [5:16]
15. 1. Sehr rasch, mit leidenschaftlichem Vortrag [2:17]
16. 2. Ziemlich langsam - Etwas bewegter - Erstes Tempo [4:52]
17. 3. Kräftig und sehr markiert [3:30]
Variations in E flat major Geistervariationen
18. Tema. Leise, innig [1:59]
19. Variation I [1:52]
20. Variation II Canonisch [1:49]
21. Variation III Etwas belebter [2:01]
22. Variation IV [2:11]
23. Variation V [3:02]