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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 7 Allegretto (opening) (arr. A. Diabelli) (1:03)
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Variations on a theme by Beethoven, Anhang F25 [19:03]
Variations on an Original Theme, Anhang F39, "Geistervariationen" (Ghost Variations) [12:29]
Variations on a Nocturne of Chopin, Anhang F26 [4:37]
Variations on a Theme by Schubert, Anhang F24, "Sehnsuchtswalzer Variationen" (reconstructed by A. Boyde from manuscripts) [8:59]
Piano Sonata No. 3 in F Minor, Op. 14 (3 discarded movements) [10:37]
Exercice Fantastique in C Major, Anhang F11 (1830 version of Toccata, Op. 7) [4:59]
Fugen und Kanons, Anhang F19: No. 8. Canon on Au Alexis send' Ich Dich [1:02]
Fantasiestücke, Op. 12: Anhang: Feurigst (con fuoco) [1:31]
Andante with Variations on an Original Theme in G Major, Anhang F7, "Mit Gott" [4:22]
Georg Christophe GROSHEIM (1764-1858)
Titania Overture, Anhang O4 (transcr. Schumann) [6:52]
Olivier Chauzu (piano)
rec. Studio 4'33, Ivry Sur Seine, Paris, France, 15 May 2015
NAXOS 8.573540 [75:49]

I've always liked the more obscure reaches of piano literature – especially that from the 19th century - and I find the unfinished and incomplete works by composers even more interesting.  This disc meets all these criteria and contains several pieces by Schumann which are rarely heard and even more rarely recorded.  Despite my reading widely about this composer, I had never even heard of some of the works on this disc!

The programme begins with Schumann’s variations on the Allegretto from Beethoven’s 7th symphony, written at various times between 1831 and 1835 and left incomplete at his death. The three surviving autograph manuscripts have been assembled so as to create a complete work, preceded by Diabelli's transcription of the original theme in order to make the piece logical and complete.  Although some of the individual variations are interesting and show a high level of inspiration (tracks 5, 7 and 11 especially), the remainder of the work comes across as a bit of an "also ran" when compared to Schumann's other variation sets.  There are a few similarities in style with some of the Symphonic Etudes, op.13. However, in my opinion this piece just doesn't quite work.  There is nothing wrong with Olivier Chauzu's playing, which is exemplary. He is certainly able to reflect Schumann's changing moods throughout this piece. It is a shame that Schumann never revised and completed these variations, as they would be an interesting addition to his canon of works.

Next follow the much better known so called "Ghost Variations". Schumann wrote these while in the delirium of his final nervous breakdown in 1854, before he attempted suicide and was committed to an asylum for the remainder of his short life. He claimed that the theme was dictated by angels, but it is actually based on the middle movement of his own Violin Concerto (WoO23), which was completed a year earlier. The piece is short, consisting of 5 variations on a theme in E flat. Interestingly, it was the basis of Brahms's four-hand variations op.23.  Here too, Chauzu seems to be able to get inside the music and brings out some interesting details which are not immediately apparent. I very much like the way he plays this piece – the transition in the first variation is particularly well done. In comparison to Jorg Demus, he is a little slower, but I prefer the better sound and the sense of yearning he imparts. It is as if the music has more space to breathe.

The third piece on the disc is the Chopin Variations, which were written in 1835 or 1836. Here he uses the theme from Chopin's Nocturne op.15 no.3 and writes 5 variations on it: This work was also left incomplete and wasn't published until 1992. He alters the ending of the main theme of Chopin’s Nocturne before appending the variations to it. The overall effect is slightly unsettling at first, but Schumann was obviously enamoured with Chopin’s Nocturne and wrote a rather splendid work, full of characteristic strange rhythms and some rather odd dissonances. It is played with power where required and just the right amount of wistfulness in the correct spots. It is a shame Schumann never finished it.

Next follows the reconstruction by the musicologist Andreas Boyde of Schumann's Variations on a theme by Schubert. Strangely, this starts with a piece very similar to the maestoso opening of Carnaval (op.9), before progressing to the variations. These are arranged in sets, with little ritornellos in between to hold the piece together. I feel that Andreas Boyde has done a rather good job of combining the three separate autograph manuscripts into a complete piece which is, by turns, cheery and melancholy. Another piece which I enjoyed and it is again nicely played throughout. The final quotation of Schubert’s Sehnsuchtwaltzer seems entirely in keeping and rounds the music off agreeably.

The remainder of the pieces are short segments, some taken from longer and more familiar works and others which are completely unknown. Schumann's 3rd Piano sonata, the "Concerto sans Orchestre", underwent several modifications prior to being accepted by the publisher. These included missing out two variations and also providing a different finale.  The rejected items have been recorded before by pianists such as Jorg Demus and Florian Uhlig and here they are all played very well. The Scherzo (track 35) is a bit of an ear-worm and bounces along cheerfully with a slightly slower middle section. There is a sense of driving force here which is entirely appropriate. While the first of the following 2 variations is slightly less inspired it is only short and the second is Schumann in a boisterous, happy mood. The original finale of the Sonata (Track 37) is a full-blooded, passionate piece, and is played accordingly in this recording. There is a near-quotation in the bass clef from Mozart’s duet from Don Giovanni “La ci darem la mano”. I only picked this up on repeated listening – I wonder if anyone else has noticed it? I must experiment with my CDs and try to see how the original conception of the Op.14 Sonata would sound with all of these extra little fragments included.

I really like the Exercise Fantastique in C major, which is the basis of the slightly later and very frequently recorded Toccata, Op.7.  It is a phenomenal tour de force for the pianist (as is the final version) and here it is played splendidly. As far as I am aware there is only one other recording of the work, by Florian Uhlig in his volume 2 of the complete piano music on the Hänssler label. Here, Chauzu matches Uhlig in temperament, speed and virtuosity. This is a marvellous piece and I hope that it begins to take a foothold in the concert halls. It deserves a wider audience.

Track 39 is a tiny Canon to Alexis. This is simple and peaceful little piece, played with exactly the right temperament.

Schumann’s Op.12 Fantasiestucke includes 8 pieces, but for some reason the item recorded here as track 40 was included as a supplement to the set. It is a shame, since it provides more of the ‘Florestan’ side of Schumann’s personality with a reflective ‘Eusebius’ central section. Both these are well contrasted here and Chauzu has no problems coping with Schumann’s cross rhythms and strange piano writing.

The penultimate track on the disc is the Variations on an Original Theme – Mit Gott, which was left incomplete by Schumann and has also been recorded elsewhere. Timewise, there is little difference between Demus and Chauzu, Demus being fractionally faster. This is another angst-ridden little piece, with flashes of light in between the sadder and more stressed -sounding parts.

The last track is a very early transcription of little-known composer Georg Christophe Grosheim’s overture to a singspiel called Titania. It appears to date from 1822, making it a work written while Schumann was around 12 years old. It is a jolly little work and proceeds cheerfully along. It isn’t a masterpiece but it shows that Schumann started writing music very early on and had a fine grasp of piano writing.

Overall, the disc is well-filled and the cover notes are useful, if not terrifically detailed. However, they point the listener in the direction of further information if so desired. As for the recording itself, the microphone is perhaps a little close and I can hear the odd pedal noise. However, the pianism is very good and well worth the cost of the disc.

Jonathan Welsh


 

 




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