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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Complete Piano Works - Volume 13: Charakterstücke II
Papillons Op. 2, No. 11 in D Major Polonaise (1829/30?) [3:17]
Albumblätter, Op. 124 (1853) [6:25]
Vier Marsche Op. 76 (1849) [15:57]
Geschwindmarsch Op. 99 no. 4 (1849/51) [3:10]
Präludium Op. 99 no. 10 (1839/51) [1:19]
Waldszenen Op. 82 (1848/49/50) [20:18]
Drei Fantasiestücke, Op. 111 (1851/52) [10:09]
Gesänge der Frühe (5), Op. 133 (1853/55) [12:54]
Florian Uhlig (piano)
rec. 2017 Menuhin Hall, Yehudi Menuhin School, Cobham, UK

This excellent disc is the thirteenth in a proposed series of fifteen which will cover all Robert Schumann’s works for solo piano. This makes a fascinating cosmos full of variety that ranges from the extremely virtuosic for the concert hall to valuable literature for piano tuition. According to Hänssler, this attractive but difficult quest has unfortunately been marked by a lack of necessary care, not to mention purely artistic deficiencies. None of the releases by other labels deserves the name ‘complete recording’. Given that Schumann published several works (Impromptus op. 5, Davidsbündlertänze op. 6, Symphonic Studies op. 13, Concert sans Orchestre or Sonata in F Minor op. 14 and Kreisleriana op. 16) in two more or less different versions, it is not legitimate, Hänssler claim, in a complete recording to include only one of the versions, let alone to amalgamate two of them. Moreover, works published at remote places as well as unpublished works and fragments that could easily be completed without too much speculation, have so far been taken on board only in exceptional cases. I’m aware of at least two collections of “Complete Schumann Piano Works. There’s a thirteen-disc set from the great Jörg Demus on Nuova Era (currently available for around £11) in acceptable 1970s sound. Fairly recently there has been another thirteen CD “live” set around £25 (I got mine much cheaper) from Dana Ciocarlie on La dolce vita; it’s very good value indeed. Also, I would not be without the DG set from Wilhelm Kempff. This contains key works on 4 CDs for under £20. Nor should we lose sight of Sviatoslav Richter’s recordings on various labels.

This set from Florian Uhlig on fifteen full price CDs is clearly aimed at a different market place. To date only Volume 8 has been reviewed here where the reviewer concluded that “… overall then, a useful recording rather than a first choice, though it is only “Carnaval” which slightly lets the recording down. This will be a most valuable set when completed, but as with all ‘complete sets’, not everything hits the heights of perfection”. He added that “It is a shame therefore that this disc does not quite [attain] the high standards of some of the London-based German pianist, Florian Uhlig’s earlier discs in the series”. Whilst not having heard them, they do seem, in common with Uhlig’s other piano recordings, to have garnered a very positive response. Incidentally, the reviewer was also complimentary concerning Demus in Carnaval, Op. 9: “[he] takes some beating. It is nearly four and a half minutes shorter than Uhlig’s, with the result being one of exhilaration and brilliance”. Despite a lack of annotation, this set is indispensable, costing less than one full price CD. In a recent review of a later Schumann disc by Demus MDG, we read: “he had already recorded the complete solo piano music on LP in the 1970s, which Nuova Era later released on CD (NE 7353), a set that I am happy to own and which is under-appreciated. The recordings are now available in a bargain price thirteen-disc Documents box (231752), which I have, and what a bargain it is”.

This set is my first experience of hearing Florian Uhlig and I’m very taken with his playing but above all by the quality of the music. Whilst, I know some of the most popular works, most of these pieces are new to me. In simple terms this is a great album to dip into or as late night listening. Both the short Polonaise from “Papillons” and “Albumblätter” are lovely, the latter slightly Schubertian. The Marches Op. 76 are a revelation and aren’t quite one might expect. Schumann composed them in 1849 as a reaction to the famous “Year of Revolution” 1848. He said to his publisher Whistling that they weren’t marches for princes but rather for republicans. They communicate as if composed in the white heat of passion in this recording. Uhlig is completely in the idiom, which after 13 albums might be expected. He avoids playing as a scholarly exercise and seems right inside Schumann having studied the scores to a great extent. For these Four Marches, I made two comparisons. Demus is forceful on a Bösendorfer, I assume as there are no notes and despite certain criticisms I’ve read, the sound is good. His performance, as ever with this musician, is authoritative. His bargain set is surely mandatory for all piano lovers. Dana Ciocarlie is also excellent without such forceful piano sound and hers is a recent recording. It’s a remarkable bargain and a tremendous feat to play all Schumann’s oeuvre live; another set that requires serious consideration. On balance, I marginally prefer Uhlig but one of his CDs costs more than Demus’s 13 and half of Ciocarlie’s complete cycle. Price is one factor that needs to be taken into the reckoning. In this I am surely not alone amongst collectors.

“Bunte Blätter” as the very detailed notes, translated by Janet and Michael Berridge from the German of Joachim Draheim, point out, are akin to the “Albumblätter” Op 124. They were brought out by the small but enterprising publisher Wilhelm Arnold in Elberfeld (now Wuppertal, North Rhine-Westphalia). Schumann did not profess to be presenting carefully planned cycles but was merely putting together compilations of individual pieces written at various times in his career. “Waldszenen” (Forest Scenes) is referred to in Chapter 2 of Oscar Wilde’s only novel “Picture of Dorian Gray”, published in 1890, proof that Schumann’s work was still very popular forty years on. I particularly warmed to “Eintritt” (entry) and the final piece “Abschied” (farewell) but everything here is delightful. Some have suggested Uhlig lacks a certain spontaneity. I don’t see this and found his playing very idiomatic. Others may have much wider knowledge but for the majority of listeners these renditions will be ideal. There are famous recordings by the like of Sviatoslav Richter (DG) but as it’s currently in a huge box it cannot really stand as a practical comparison.

“Waldszenen” is followed by three “Fantasiestücke” which are excellent. I particularly liked the second “Zeimlich langsam” which is more meditative and is followed by the forceful third piece. Robert’s wife Clara, composer and pianist in her own right, noted in 1851 “R has composed three piano pieces of very serious passionate character, which please me very well”. They still do. It’s hard to hear these in the knowledge that only five years later Schumann would die alone in an asylum.

“Gesänge der Frühe” (Songs of the early morning) from the final years of Schumann’s life and the last he saw published, appropriately end this very well filled disc. The work is highly regarded and saw no dropping off of the quality that concerned Clara over certain other works including those for the violin. In a review by Robert Beattie of a fairly recent recording by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (Chandos), whom I heard play late Beethoven supremely in Preston four years ago, he comments that “The best recordings of this work, such as that by Anderszewski (Virgin review) capture the profound sadness and fragility at the heart of the music. Bavouzet also succeeded in doing so in this mesmerising account.” I haven’t yet had the opportunity to hear either recording; however, Uhlig does capture the qualities mentioned by this earlier reviewer and I found his performance almost heart-breaking in its utter sadness and for example in the second piece where Schumann’s spirit is clearly alive. The work and this account deserve to be considered in the highest rank.

I’ve greatly enjoyed this CD and we have certainly not been reduced to “scrapings” for this thirteenth disc. Florian Uhlig does seem to me, empathetic with Schumann and even as a one-off disc this is certainly deserving of attention. I’m not qualified to comment on its place with other recordings but I would like to hear the others and those collecting the cycle will undoubtedly enjoy its delights. The real winner here is Schumann whose music I’ve heard more and more in recent months and of which I have come to think even more highly. That is the real success of any recording.

David R Dunsmore

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