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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Novellette, Op. 21 (Book IV) No. 8 (1838) [11:57]
Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6 (1837, rev. 1850) [36:13]
Novellette, Op. 21 (Book I) No. 2 (1838) [6:34]
Thème sur le nom Abegg varié pour le pianoforte, Op.1 (1829-30) [8:56]
Variationen über ein eigenes Thema, WoO 24, F 39 (Geistervariationen) (1854) [11:54]
Imogen Cooper (piano)
rec. 3-6 November 2014, Concert Hall, Snape Maltings, Suffolk.
CHANDOS CHAN 10874 [75:51]

Having greatly enjoyed Imogen Cooper’s Kreisleriana recording from Chandos (see review), I needed no extra persuasion to have a listen to this third volume while also being gently reminded that I have yet to hear her second volume. Stuart Sillitoe has beaten me to it with his review of this disc, but I agree both with his admiration for this recording as well as deploring the lack of a whole set of the Noveletten, though perhaps the remaining pieces of Op.21 will appear elsewhere – the superb performances here certainly cry out for completion.

The Davidsbündlertänze are the main feature here, and with Cooper’s glorious palette of colour and contrasts of touch, from the sharpest of dramatic interjections to the most elegant and tenderly confiding softness of touch you know you are in for a treat from the outset. With its Florestan and Eusebius duality of character this is a work that demands a great deal of imagination, poetic depth and clarity of vision. Cooper’s weight of expression behind and around the notes leaves little room for doubt as to whether heroism or affection is being expressed, and we are either stiffening our sinews, being swept off our feet, bowled over or left in joyful faints of exquisite blushes or painful angst at every turn.

The Thème sur le nom Abegg varié pour le pianoforte or ‘Abegg’ Variations are less familiar, or were to me at least. Schumann’s ambitions as a concert pianist were still very real at this early stage in his musical career, and the popular variation form was an ideal vehicle for the exhibition of virtuoso prowess. As Nicholas Marston points out in his informative booklet notes Schumann deplored empty display, repeatedly writing in his published musical criticism that “poetry, not prose, must predominate.” There is plenty of technical meat in this music both in terms of performance as in content, and this is as confident and assured a way you can imagine any composer of Schumann’s time to launch their composing career. Cooper’s performance is smooth and elegant, and filled with refined poetry as well as the considerable fireworks demanded by the score.

From the other end of his creative life, the opening of the Variationen über ein eigenes Thema has a heft that puts it into an entirely different world. Brahms certainly recognised the theme’s qualities and he would later adopt it for his Variations Op. 23 for piano duet. This theme was one that Schumann “said angels had sung to him”, and while it is indeed a strong one the somewhat rambling variations can hardly be said to be flawless. It was Brahms who persuaded Clara Schumann to publish the theme nearly forty years later in 1893, and it wasn’t until 1939 that the work was published complete.

If you are looking for the complete Noveletten Op. 21 then these can be found on Danny Driver’s excellent Hyperion recording. A favourite of the Davidsbündlertänze has been that of Alessandra Ammara on the Arts label (review), and with its magical ‘halo’ qualities and heightened emotional pitch at extremes this remains a desirable reference, but Imogen Cooper is still assuredly amongst the top of the leader board in her recording. The sound quality is excellent for this release, though there is a slight pedal-release twang from the piano here and there that I’m sure some clever technician might have been able to deal with.

Dominy Clements
Previous review: Stuart Sillitoe (Recording of the Month)



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