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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Sonata No. 1 in F sharp minor Op. 11 (1835) [29:25]
Fantasy in C major Op. 17 (1838) [30:46]
Maurizio Pollini (piano)
Rec. April 1973 at Herkules-Saal, Munich
Presto CD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 423 134-2 [63:05]

Pollini made his first recordings for EMI, and they included the wonderfully poetic version of Chopin’s E minor concerto (now on Warner). He then moved to DG, with whom he has remained. His early DG recordings still count as some of his best: they include the late Beethoven sonatas, the Chopin Studies, a twentieth-century disc featuring Stravinsky and Prokofiev and this Schumann pairing. It is very good to have it back in circulation, thanks to Presto.

Schumann’s most characteristic form was the suite of linked piano pieces, such as Carnaval or Kreisleriana. When he turned to sonata form for larger works, he was not wholly happy with it, and although his sonatas, symphonies and quartets contain marvellous music, they do not use sonata form with the assurance of the Viennese classics. Mind you, one could say the same of Chopin and Liszt, though their sonata form works are also wonderful.

Here, Pollini makes as strong a case as one could wish for Schumann’s first sonata, a tragic work written when he was still in doubt whether he would ever marry his beloved Clara Wieck, to whom it is dedicated. A haunting slow introduction with a sombre theme leads to an Allegro vivace where a powerful motif in dactylic rhythm (a quaver followed by two semiquavers) dominates most of the movement, with wonderfully expressive chromatic harmonies. Relief is given in a gentler theme in E major but the tragic first theme soon takes over again and reaches a climax in the major which nevertheless still sounds tragic. This is followed by a brief Aria, taking up the opening theme from the first movement and which Pollini plays very quietly, and then a Scherzo in a rather gruff, Beethovenian mood, which seems to mock the distress of the first movement. As well as a normal, if brief, trio we have a fierce Intermezzo which ends in an unmetered cadenza before the Scherzo returns. I found myself thinking of the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata. The Finale is perhaps the least satisfactory movement, not because of Pollini but because Schumann has no clear sense of structure for it: it is a kind of loose sonata-rondo in which the episodes return without any particular logic and pianistic virtuosity is allowed to take over. Still, Pollini makes the most of this, and his variation of touch, refusal to overstress the climaxes and his sheer dexterity make for a commanding performance.

The Fantasy, despite its name, seems to me a finer sonata than any of three works so called by Schumann. Indeed, it seems to me not only Schumann’s finest piano work but his finest work altogether. The first movement, originally written separately, again reflects his passion for Clara Wieck during their enforced separation. The second is in complete contrast with a sturdy march which ends in a tumultuous coda. The finale is, unusually, a slow movement. It starts like the opening of Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata but moves through a greater variety of moods before a confident close. The Beethoven influence is quite strong in this work: there is also a quotation from Beethoven’s song-cycle An die ferne Geliebte (To the distant beloved) in the first movement and the work has the weight, intensity and unity of Beethoven’s sonatas.

Pollini’s performance of the Fantasy seems to me quite breath-taking. Of course, he has total technical command of what is a very tricky work – not for nothing was it dedicated to Liszt, and the leaps in both hands in opposite directions at the end of the second movement are a notorious trap, here surmounted with apparent nonchalance. But he also has a firm grasp of the work’s many moods, its sudden changes and contrasts. He knows when to follow the line through changing textures and when to emphasize a difference. He made me feel what the best performances should: that this is how the music goes and there is no other way. Of course, there are other ways, but while listening to a performance of this quality you do not think of them.

I should say something about the competition. There is not so much of it in the sonata, though I have long valued Demidenko, coupled with the third sonata, now on Hyperion Helios. For the Fantasy, many great Schumann pianists have recorded the work and, on my shelves, I have Richter, Argerich, Brendel and Perahia. Pollini has nothing to fear from any of them: his is a classic performance. I should mention that you can also get the Fantasy coupled with Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, a coupling also offered by Perahia, but it would be a shame to pass up on the sonata. It is good to have this disc back again.

Stephen Barber

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