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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Works - Vol. 7
Bunte Blatter, Op 99 (1850) [34:38]
Nachtstücke, Op 23 (1839) [18:07]
3 Romances, Op 28 (1840) [14:14]
Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)
rec. August 23-25, 1995, Gemeinde Saal, Meggen
Presto CD
DECCA 452 855-2 [67:22]

Vladimir Ashkenazy opens this installment of Schumann’s piano oeuvre with the set of 1851 Bunte Blätter or “Colored Leaves,” those assorted fourteen pieces, assembled from discards of various published works. Schumann most often entitles these aggregates Albumblätter, album leaves, which he later published in a new set, Op 124. The A major first piece, for instance, marked Nicht schnell, mit innigkeit, dates from 1838 and was meant to serve as a Christmas greeting for wife Clara. The F-sharp minor Zeimlich langsam, sehr gesangvoll unfolds as a haunted nocturne that might have graced the Carnaval. Another slow, piquant Langsam, No 8 in E-flat minor, conveys a valedictory melancholy. The No 10 Präludium receives a passionate realization from Ashkenazy, well suited, since the B-flat minor affect closely resembles the grim side of Chopin. Schumann asks that the Marsch in D minor be “very drawn out,” and Ashkenazy complies, reminding us of the Funeral of the Chopin Second Sonata. Its middle section, comprised of triplets, vaguely suggests one of the Chopin Nouveau Études. The No 12, marked Abendmusik (Evening Music), asks for a Menuett-Tempo, but the martial result seems alien to anything Vienna had to offer. The succeeding, frothy Scherzo in G minor quickly assumes the layering we associate with Schumann’s acolyte, Brahms. Incidentally, the No 4, the first of the Album Leaves (in F-sharp minor), served as the motive for Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Schumann, Op 9. The last of the Schumann set, Op 99, Geschwindmarsch, or quick-march, in D minor, plays as impish hexentanz, or witch-dance, rife with biting humor.

Ashkenazy proceeds to the four Nachtstücke, the set of pieces from 1839 composed under the cloud of a terrifying vision of funerals Schumann experienced in the March of 1838, a forecast of the death of his brother, Eduard. The title of the work derives from Schumann’s favored E.T.A. Hoffmann, whose own, wild fantasies corresponded with Schumann’s sometimes macabre imagination. The C major opening cortège in symphonic texture approaches from a distance, gradually becoming ff, only to recede once more. The F major second piece assumes a macabre humor, a monothematic, staccato, descending scale that parodies the previous march procession. A lyrical interlude erupts based on an inversion of the material, and this blend of laughter amidst the tears has a curious fascination for us. The third of the set, in D-flat major, plays like a vivacious etude that eventually pits triple against duple time. Ashkenazy assumes an aggressive posture here, moving to the first, minor-key interlude with a directed vehemence. The spirit of E.T.A. Hoffmann seems nigh, the tempestuous sensibility that engendered the Kreisleriana. The tone of the funeral procession returns for the final piece, F major, here in ternary form, with a middle section in overlapping stretti. The sighing, yearning character of the opening bars and their repetition might alert Mahler enthusiasts that the second of the “Nachtmusik” sections of Symphony No 7 echoes the sentiment.

The advent of the Drei Romanzen, Op 28 announces the end of Schumann’s emotionally harrowing years, 1837-1839, in which occurred the strife with his beloved Clara’s father, the death of brother Eduard, and issues concerning his professional life as a musician. He presented Clara with his Three Romances in 1838, but he withheld publication until 1840, after some revision, and he did not honor Clara’s wish for the dedication, granting that inscription to Count Heinrich Reuss-Kostritz. These three works would end the virtual domination of piano composition in his oeuvre, so that he might then dedicate himself, in turns, to song, symphonic writing, and chamber music. The first of the set, in B-flat minor, moves aggressively in dotted 2/4, with sixteenths prevalent and later, a quarter note and an eighth. In direct contrast, the second of the set, in F-sharp major, has proven an immortal reverie or nocturne set in three staves, with the thumbs creating in duet the interlocked melodic lines. Ashkenazy does inject a moment of angst when the music modulates in syncopation into C-sharp minor. The embroidered polyphony soon resolves once more into the tonic, and the long-separated couple may live in future harmony. The last of the triptych, in B major, proves the most developed and richly diverse in emotional transformations. Of all three in Op 28, its rondo character shifts from a martial declamation to a series of interludes, more like variations, in the manner of E.T.A. Hoffmann pieces like Kreisleriana. Schumann’s sense of polyphonic color and the audacity of passing dissonances testify to his growth as a composer, another victory over himself after two years of personal trial.

Gary Lemco

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