CD Reviews | CTD (Briefly Noted) | JFL (Dip Your Ears) | DVD Reviews

5.3.24

Critic’s Notebook: Daniil Trifonov in Recital


Also reviewed for Die Presse: Wie Daniil Trifonov den Mount Beethoven erklomm

Daniil Trifonov, the "Artist"


available at Amazon
Rachmaninov for Two
S.Babayan/D.Trifonov
DG


available at Amazon
L.v.Beethoven,
Hammerklaviersonate
Maurizio 'The God' Pollini
DG


Sit down, play away. Chop-chop, no dilly-dallying. First thoughts on Trifonov racing away with op.106 in the Konzerthaus’ Great Hall: “He can’t possibly keep this tempo up without cracking.” Well, not for lack of pushing the envelope, he didn’t. His way out was a flighty into extreme rubatos, extremes in general, within a movement, within a phrase. As if the sonata wasn’t enough of a high wire act, Trifonov played it without a safety net, almost coming to a halt a few times, then racing away wildly. A bit the cliché of a tempestuous Beethoven, unbridled and famously on perennial bad terms with the comb. There were unwitting elements of George Antheil in this performance and while it was never outright off, there were several occasions where you had to flinch. The slow movement was of ineffable ardency. Again, really going to the limits, seeking, striving, experimenting, putting together an emotional puzzle in the moment. First charming then probing existential questions. Finally the resurrection. In the end, only notes were left, and hardly any Beethoven. Ivo Pogorelich would have been proud. Very nearly absurd? Yes. But also much less annoying that it sounds reading about it. In the Allegro risoluto Trifonov appeared to be in search of time lost in the slow movement, doubling the tempo or making it seem that way, anyway, which underlined the eccentricity of op.106 without actually giving it the needed cohesion.

The flippant, jazzy encore after this (his riff on Art Tatum/Johnny Green’s “I cover the waterfront”), the Chopin-esque bit of Scriabin, or the Chopin-Variations of Mompou’s were very odd and rather out of place, after this titanic struggle.

Speaking of “Pogorelich would have been proud”: The evening started with the Great Hall dimmed well below the usual levels. In this twilight, Daniil Trifonov emerged, all shaggy-bearded and unkempt, in a battered old black suit, walked briskly to the Bösendorfer, sat down, and began before most of the applause arose and before that which had arisen died down. Happily, he doesn’t do any interpretative piano-bench dances, but plays unfazed, fully composed. Yes, it’s still an act, staged and calculated for effect, down to the look, something that’s crept from between some seedier Tolstoi-pages or, half Revenant, half Joaquin-Phoenix-on-Letterman; the sense of a high mass being celebrated; the “don’t disturb the maestro – he is decomposing” air. But happily Trifonov doesn’t just act the ‘great artist’, he is a great artist. Even in the carefully cultivated neglect with which he played the Jean-Philippe Rameau Suite in A minor, all in an introvert shade of pianissimo, forcing the hall into silence. Splendid when it works, although one phone in two-thousand is always on and someone in the audience is always half-way dying of pneumonia. An intermediate mezzo-forted jolted people out of their seats. The introspective, technically astonishing, detail-intense playing lulled one in a sense of safety. And then: Woof! The martial, “too-many-notes” Finale, so not at all French and dainty.

Off stage, back on stage, sit down, on we go. Applause? I don’t think so: Mozart. Sonata in F-Major K.332. Mannerisms galore, showing and trying to show that it’s supposed to be all about the music. Bent over the keys, this was nuanced, very fast, never sloppy, Mozart. A wondrous mix, self-possessed, very personal. How the Mendelssohn Variations sérieuses op.54 have been more often performed at the Konzerthaus than the preceding Mozart can only be explained by K.332 being one of many brilliant Mozart-sonatas, but the Variations one of only a few larger single-work Mendelssohn piano pieces. Not even Trifonov was able to bring forth a different argument for that little factoid.





4.3.24

Critic’s Notebook: A Bum Show from the Wiener Concert-Verein


Enthusiasm and good programming are not sufficient as a substitute for good music-making


available at Amazon
S.Coleridge-Taylor,
Violin Concerto, Ballade, African Suite
Chineke! Orchestra
Deccca


available at Amazon
S.Coleridge-Taylor,
Piano & Clarinet Q5ts
Nash Ensemble!
Hyperion


This concert was a while back – but it refuses to become less memorable for all the distance I’ve put between us. The “Wiener Concert-Verein” is a telephone chamber orchestra of sorts that was founded in 1987 by young members of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, presumably to try out interesting repertoire that they were never going to play with the stuffy ol’ big boys and to get their feet wet. They are now neither associated with the VSO anymore, nor young, but to their great credit, especially given that they exist in Vienna (where it is either Brahms or subsidized avantgarde music but rarely anything between), they still keep up the reasonably interesting programming. A concert in January of this year, for example, featured Elgar’s Introduction & Allegro (Elgar being a rare guest on the continent, that’s nice), a work for string orchestra by Oscar Jockel (made slightly less surprising seeing that Oscar Jockel is their current conductor-in-residence, conducting said concert), Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (a.k.a. “Concerto in C minor for Piano, Trumpet, and String Orchestra”; not that adventurous no matter which way you twist it), and the always welcome Josef Suk with his Serenade for Strings.

On the occasion of my visit in the Brahms Saal of the Musikverein on December 11th, it was a mix of Mozart (“Serenata notturna”), Johanna Doderer with Ritus, DWV 150 (I sure hope that “Doderer Werke Verzeichnis” number she gives her works, instead of working with opus numbers like mere mortals, is tongue-in-cheek and not unironic off-the-charts-pretentiousness), Joseph Bologne’s Symphony op.11/2, an excerpt from Aldemaro Romero’s Suite for Strings, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Novelette for Strings and Percussion, op.52/1. The Mozart and the out-of-tune first violins sounded like cats on an off day. The concertmaster was hopelessly out of his depth and the lack of coordination was probably not helped by the unorthodox ‘conducting’ of Glass Marcano, who seemed be engaged in something that was equal parts Tai chi, a Philippe Herreweghe imitation, and an interpretative dance.

The Doderer, while not excessively together, was less afflicted by these woes and the music itself is lovely enough: Austro-Pärt, none too complex, easy on the ears if not the patience. The slight and charming Colombe Symphony was promising in the first movement but torpedoed by miserable second violins in the next, unable to take back. The Romero piece is the kind of fun work that makes European audiences feel daringly exotic – and they were egged on by the suggestive, flashy gestures of the conductor moving along to the music. The violins still sounded sour in the primo Coleridge-Taylor (not yet recorded, so someone get to it!), but by and large all hands were on deck again, despite the painfully hapless conducting going on in front of them. Unfathomably, there were encores given: Venezuelan music important to the very enthusiastic Glass Marcano, enthusiastically played too, but sold under value.

Photo © Venezuelasinfonica.com





3.3.24

Critic’s Notebook: Alexander Malofeev gives his recital debut in Vienna


Also reviewed for Die Presse: Sensationell: Ausnahmepianist Alexander Malofeev begeistert bei seinem Wiener Solodebüt

A piano recital to remember: Alexander Malofeev in his solo debut in Vienna


There was a very young, very blond man in front of the Steinway, sitting low, and bent like an adult in a soapbox racer. Did he saw the piano bench’s legs off? For his Vienna recital debut, Alexander Malofeev, the up-and-coming Russian piano star, chose one half of baroque music and one half of Russian late romantics. He started with Händel, the Suite in B-flat major: There was terrific energy in the last of the variation of the Aria and lovely contrast in the lyrical-tender Minuet. Attacca, Malofeev went right into the Purcell Ground in C minor and from there into Georg Muffat’s Passacaglia from his Apparatus musico-organisticus, giving this part the sense of being a grand suite. In all of this he was unfazed, unsentimental, providing long, structured passages rather than a string of merely beautiful moments. You could hear the structure – and it was beautiful to do so.

He allowed for applause before the twice-transcribed Bach Concerto BWV 593 (in any case too famous to have fitted snugly into that imaginary baroque suite) and almost seemed pleasantly surprised, amazed that he got any, never mind such a boisterousness round. The Vivaldi concerto for two violins, turned into a concerto for solo organ by Bach and then liberally-romantically transcribed to suit the piano by Samuil Feinberg, was a thundering, bell-tinkling affair, imposing and tender in turn, elaborate and ornate here, introverted and sober there. A grand crescendo thunderously reminded of the work’s intermittent origins on the organ. Grand stuff.

Only very minimally less impressive was the second half, beginning with Scriabin’s Prélude and Nocturne for left hand, op.9. Chopin-like, as early Scriabin is wont to be, and for once a Wittgenstein-unrelated work just for the left hand; apparently Scriabin wrote it for himself after a bout with tendinitis and/or wanting to brag in front of an audience. Then again, it’s a piece that’s surprisingly devoid of obvious braggadocio, more dreamy, if anything. Still impressive, though, especially since Scriabin doesn’t at all let the ‘one-hand-only’ thing limit hims to which range on the keyboard he writes for. Incidentally, Malofeev is no braggart himself, either. Nor, in a way, even a virtuoso who goes for the fireworks, even though his brilliant technique would surely allow him to do so.

The concluding Rachmaninov (the first two bits from the Morceaux de fantaisie, a transcription of “Lilacs” from his Twelve Songs op.21, and the B-flat minor Sonata) was full-throated but not violent. Most pleasingly, Malofeev never succumbs to romantic treacle and the Sonata suffered only from being boring because, hey, it’s Rachmaninov. Not that everyone in the hollering crowd felt the same way about good old Sergei, but the encores from Mikhail Pletnev’s Nutcracker Suite made up for it, for anyone who did. What a bloody extraordinary recital!

Photo © Manuel Chemineau





29.2.24

Happy 56th Birthday, Rossini


Fifty-six is no age for a composer and so it is little wonder that Rossini - or at least his music - is alive and well. Born on February 29th, 1792, Gioachino Antonio Rossini soon discovered a penchant and talent in culinary appreciation as well as note-churning. The latter he put to use for the creation of almost 40 operas, the former to support his stately appearance.

So much has been written about Rossini, that I would not likely contribute anything new on this special Rossini-day - so instead I list below all that has been written about Rossini on Ionarts over the last few years.

Except, before I do that, I still want to rehash some reasonably well known stories about Rossini, just because they are too good to pass up on - and because they endear the composer to me, if not always his music.

There is, of course, the story that when Rossini laid on bed composing and he dropped a sheet of freshly written music, rather than making the effort to climb off the bed and pick it up, he simply wrote the music out, again. Consider this - and that tiny little Rossini's daycare consisted of a pork butchery, where he got to watch the production of sausages - and listen to his music carefully...

The most enduring story about Rossini may well be his admission to having cried only three times in his life: Once after his first opera (La cambiale di matrimonio) had a disastrous premiere. Then again when he heard Paganini play. And finally when he witnessed a truffle-stuffed turkey fall overboard in a picnic boating accident. (Sharp tongues might point out that Rossini would have known all about turkeys, but that's just not a nice thing to say on such a rare birthday.)


Rossini on ionarts:


Lawrence Brownlee, classical voice


Another evening of Arias
CDT, October 20, 2016

Lawrence Brownlee Returns to Wolf Trap


An evening of Arias
CDT, March 28, 2016

Rossini's 'Semiramide' in Concert


CD Review
CDT, November 24, 2015

Dismally Banal 'Tell' at Covent Garden


Commentary
CDT, July 03, 2015

Second Opinion: 'Cenerentola' at WNO


Opera Review
RRR, May 13, 2015

In Search of the Perfect Mousetrap: WNO's 'La Cenerentola'


Opera Review
CDT, May 11, 2015

Ionarts-at-Large: Rossini in San Francisco


Opera Review
RRR, November 26, 2013

Briefly Noted: More of Pappano's Rossini


CD Review
CDT, August 27, 2013

Ionarts at Santa Fe: The Lady without a Lake


Opera Review
CDT, August 02, 2013

Operatic Threesome, Damrau Glitters in 'Ory'


DVD Review
CDT, June 21, 2012

Guillaume Tell


DVD Review
CDT, October 14, 2011

Briefly Noted: Julia Lezhneva

CD Review, Rossini Arias
CTD, October 6th, 2011

Notes from the 2011 Salzburg Festival ( 9 )

Concert Review, Stabat Mater
jfl, August 15th, 2011

8½ Turks in Italy at Wolf Trap Opera

Opera Review, Il Turco...
CTD, July 14th, 2010

'Cinderella' Not a Dream Come True

Opera Review
Sophia Vastek, September 28th, 2009

'Barber of Seville' as Cartoon, and Not with Bugs Bunny

Opera Review
CTD, September 15th, 2009

Wall of Horns (Munich Opera Festival 2008)

Concert Review, Works for Horn Octet
jfl, August 19th, 2008

Washington Concert Opera: Bianca e Falliero

Opera Review
CTD, April 15th, 2008

Opera on DVD: Il Viaggio a Reims

DVD Review
CTD, November 27th, 2007

Ionarts in Siena: Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia


Rossini's Otello, Washington Concert Opera

WCO
Sonya Harway, May 1st, 2007

Flórez's Breakthrough

Two Comedies of Errors

Il Viaggio a Reims, Kirov Opera, Kennedy Center, Washington

Siege of Baltimore

L'Assedio di Corinta, Baltimore Lyric Opera
CTD, October 16th, 2006

Frolics and Frippery: A Roll in the Hay with Rossini

Le Comte Ory, Wolftrap
Richard K. Fitzgerarld, July 22nd, 2006

Summer Opera 2006: "Barber of Seville" in St. Louis


Il Viaggio a St. Petersburg

Il Viaggio a Reims, Kirov Opera, Mariinksy Theater, St.Petersburg
Oksana Khadarina, May 30th, 2006

Let's Do Silly Things in Algeria


Tancredi: Sounds Good


Summer Opera: La Cenerentola at Wolf Trap

La Cenerentola, Wolf Trap
CTD, August 21st, 2005

Summer Opera: Barber of Seville in Santa Fe




Even Google celebrates Rossini today:




24.2.24

ABT returns to the Kennedy Center with "Swan Lake"

Daniel Camargo and Isabella Boylston in Swan Lake with American Ballet Theatre. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor

American Ballet Theatre brought its gorgeous version of Swan Lake back to the Kennedy Center Opera House this week. Last presented here in 2017, when it also sold out, Kevin McKenzie's choreography has not not been substantially altered in the Susan Jaffe. The only thing that stood out was in the introductory scene, which took place behind a scrim, when the evil antagonist, von Rothbart, seduced Odile. This bit of filling in the back story, during the otherwise unrelated orchestral introduction, is on its own merits a bad idea. Having the villain emerge from the cave, where he has taken the young woman, pretend wrestling with a stuffed swan added an unneeded note of absurdity.

Fortunately, most of the other elements of the ballet were in good hands. Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer since 2014, brought experience and subtlety to the leading role. Her Odette, the fragile white swan, was strikingly less human, more wild animal than woman in many ways. The swoops of her head in the tragic pas de deux of Act II, with gorgeous violin and cello solos from the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, seemed a little stiff and unnatural. She was much more striking in Act III, flashy and seductive as Odile, the supposed daughter of von Rothbart who tricks Prince Siegfried into betraying Odette. Her sequence of thirty-some fouetté turns was impressively virtuosic.

The triumph of the evening went to Daniel Camargo, the Brazilian dancer who joined ABT as a guest artist in the 2021-2022 season. (Alexei Ratmansky had worked with Camargo at Dutch National Ballet, a connection that led him to approach Camargo about coming to New York when ABT had some injuries to deal with.) Named a principal dancer in the summer of 2022, he was something to behold as Prince Siegfried: an athletic presence with amazing vertical lift in his leaps, and a steady, upright axis in spins. This role is in many ways the dramatic focus of this ballet, and Camargo's emotional range was worthy of the spotlight.

The ABT corps continues to impress with the improved unity of its movements, particularly the women as the flock of swans, crisply coordinated and elegant in style. The men, featured in the divertissements, were uniformly strong as well, with an energetic turn by young dancers Jake Roxander and Takumi Miyaki in the Neapolitan dance of Act III. McKenzie's decision to split the character of von Rothbart into two personas remains as ill advised as before, with the monster version, rather cartoonish and silly, undermining the character's menace. Jose Sebastian's sebaceous performance as the human von Rothbart was way over the top: he seduced every woman on the stage, even Siegfried's mother along with all four princesses, and then leapt playfully onto Siegfried's throne. One may or may not need comic diversion in a ballet like Swan Lake, but there it was.

Swan Lake runs through February 25. kennedy-center.org

23.2.24

Critic’s Notebook: Anderszewski Recital, Musikverein


Also reviewed for Die Presse: Piotr Anderszewski: Chopin-Mazurkas verwandeln sich bei ihm in Muränen

A Masterclass in Relaxation and Rubato: Piotr Anderszewski at the Musikverein



available at Amazon
K.Szymanowski, B.Bartók, L.Janáček,
Mazurkas Op. 50, 14 Bagatelles etc.
Piotr Anderszewski
Warner


Piotr Anderszweski was only the replacement, at his piano recital at Vienna’s Musikverein: Maria João Pires had been scheduled to perform but had to cancel. Not a shabby replacement. Few patrons in the well-filled Golden Hall could have complained beforehand; fewer still afterwards. For one, it’s nice that he isn’t a piano-bench dancer, who tries to tell you with his contortions how you are supposed to feel about the music, rather than making you feel that way through how he plays. He’s got a steady hand at the wheel, and wields a (surprisingly) wild rubato with it, which turned the three Chopin Mazurkas op.59 into relaxed Nocturnes that would, every so often, suddenly, rear their head, and shoot forward like a moray eel aiming for the unsuspecting diver’s naked toe. At those moments, when, after stealing so much time in some places, he had to give it all back at the end of a phrase, the notes became pushed together to the point of cluster chords. Five (out of 20) of Szymanowski’s Mazurkas op.50 varied between relaxed and disembodied, almost indifferent on the one hand (metaphorically, not literally), and lively and besotted with tonal color on the other.

Bartók’s 14 Bagatelles, op.6, are little character pieces that come in all shapes and colors, with cathedral-like grandness one second, prickly little will-o’-the-wisps the next, tickling the ears, turning in the wind this way, then that, and adding a share of lovelorn bitterness. Anderszewski made them come alive, just moving his fingers, entirely unfazed. Where the opening E minor Bach Partita BWV 830 had been so flexible, it had into something intriguing yet almost worryingly romantic, the concluding B major Partita BWV 825, was exalted and sublime, with a steady pulse and forward momentum, very lively (Courante), then exuding celestial peace (Sarabande), a tinkling of bells (Menuet), and dashing, compelling in the concluding Gigue. Bach and Bartók as encores, too, and especially the latter’s Three Hungarian Folk Songs from Csík shone in coy, playful light, sounded almost like Mompou.




22.2.24

Music – It Has To Become Part of Me – An Interview with Piotr Anderszewski

This interview was conducted in 2011 in Salzburg and initially appeared as part of the long-defunct and deleted Classical WETA blog. I have rescucitated it now, to go with a Critic's Notebook review of a recital of Piotr Anderszewski's at the Musikverein.




Piano troubles? Piotr Anderszewski is preparing in the Mozarteum his concert later that night and is interrupted not just by me—late for my interview, coming from another interview and having gotten the time wrong—but by technicians that need to move the piano he had been playing on to another room. He near-imperceptibly rolls his eyes to an equally faint smile and sits down for a quick chat. Being late already, I lose no time: Are you a pianist or a musician?

P.A.: Hmhmmmmmmmmm. He takes a short while to take the question in, assess its treachery, and then continues quickly, almost as if in free verse: More musician than pianist / but even musician / I’m not sure / if I’m a musician… / Pianist / definitely not.

Did you start out with the piano?

P.A.: Yes. Well, I started composing a little bit, actually.

Before you took up the piano?

P.A.: Well, together with the piano. But I was more interested in the composition part and listening to music than I was actually fascinated by the instrument itself. It never really interested very much.

But it’s the way you can express yourself best in music, so that’s why you do it?

P.A.: Ahhhhhh, I guess yes… and it’s the most complete instrument, the most, maybe complex, in a way… and also the repertoire, you know, is so amazing and I think I would feel very frustrated on any other instrument.

Where you ever fascinated by the idea of playing the organ?

P.A.: I played the organ a little bit, yeah…” he says with distinct lack of enthusiasm… “yeah… uhh…” he winds down to a faint grunt before hitting upon a new thought and continues with unexpected vigor: “What I liked about the organ is the setting, the beautiful church, and there is this huge echo, and this whole atmosphere and this I like very much. But the piano has this incredible capacity of suggesting, you know. It can suggest singing—which is astonishing for a percussive instrument. It is an instrument about giving the illusion. And it’s truly a magical instrument. And I mean in a bad sense, as well. It’s a dangerous instrument, because it’s not real. The piano, if you look at the mechanism, at how it works… how to activate the whole mechanism just in order to produce the sound: it’s complex but extremely easy compared to, for example, the violin. Just extremely easy, you know. But then there’s everything that happens between the notes. How do you balance the chords? How do you space notes? It’s very, very… it’s a very mysterious instrument, I think. Why, for example, does one pianist play one note and another plays the same note and it sounds completely, completely different. Despite this mechanism where you’d think you would have very little impact on the outcome. But, in fact you, have a huge impact.

How do you satisfy your own desire for a certain sound?

P.A.: It’s of course linked to the music I play. For me, for example, when I work, when I practice, I always practice with the instrument. When you asked the first question, ‘are you a pianist’… frankly, I didn’t know what to say because in a way, yes, I am. I know some colleagues who study scores and they study it on the train or in the plane and they can really study their piece without actually touching the instrument, without actually activating the sound.

[He gets distracted for a moment by the worry that there is milk in the tea that is approaching—but there is not.]

For me, practicing the score doesn’t make any sense. I cannot—I tried… but for me it’s the score and immediately I have to hear it… it has to be both. I cannot practice on the piano without the score, either. For me it doesn’t work to practice the piano without looking at what I am playing in terms of the score.

Because…?

P.A.: He squirms a bit: Ahyhhhww I don’t know, I need to have this connection of both, of what is written… Now I’m speaking not as an improviser or composer but an interpreter of a certain piece. I need to be in touch with the text, always.

Do you use the music when you play?

P.A.: No. Not during the concert.

Would you like to, if the audience didn’t care?

P.A.: No. I prefer not to use it. The performance is something else, you try to forget… try to forget everything, it’s a state of amnesia of sorts, in the best sense. The more I forget, the better I play.

So you distill the enormous complexities of a score into an impression which you then interpret?

P.A.: Yes… I suppose. Yes. It’s… there has to be the visual contact, somehow. It’s what the composer left us, so there needs to be this material contact. At the end of the day that’s all we’ve got. Of course we have biographies and we know about a composers’ life, more or less, but then practically what we are left with is the manuscript. Or a good edition, at least. And then that’s like a—how to say—it’s just like a drawing. Like a code that you need to decrypt. That you need to translate, actually properly translate, into the world of sounds. So I need to look at while I am translating, while I am doing the work, while I am deciding… I need to see this and be in touch with this text, even though I know it by heart, of course. For me, memorizing is not such an issue… the work really only starts when actually the music is memorized.

Are there any contemporary composer you particularly cherish, either to listen to or to play or both…

P.A.: Hmmm… not really. Honestly, somehow in the last years I haven’t explored this at all, you know. And, frankly, I don’t know why.

But you must be approached by composers?

P.A.: I’ve been approached, people send me scores… but I just feel saturated with all these possibilities… there’s so much already in the classical repertoire I feel I need to do and taking one small piece, taking a Chopin Mazurka, for example, it’s sometimes months of practice for me. I learn rather slowly and deciding to commit to a piece to learn a piece is a big decision for me because I know I will spend months and probably years with this. It’s sort of, well, it’s not a marriage, but almost. I internalize it, somehow—it has to become part of me. So it’s a very, very intimate process; basically a decision about who I let into my life. I don’t know why I am like this. I see other colleagues of mine that have a much lighter approach: ‘Well, it’s just a piece of music and you try to do it as well as you can.’ And for me, it really seems to affect me very personally and very deeply. Every piece has to become myself, somehow, otherwise I just cannot interpret a piece if I don’t have this feeling.

Is there a Liszt-piece you have ever internalized?

P.A.: No… Never. Not a composer that speaks to me, particularly. But maybe… you never know, these things change.




Photo #2 © K.Miura (2007)

21.2.24

Dip Your Ears: No. 274 (Songs of Morning; Piotr Anderszewski’s Schumann)



available at Amazon
R.Schumann
Piano Music
Piotr Anderszewski
Virgin/Warner, 2011

The delightful unfunniness of Robert Schumann


Piotr Anderszewski’s 2011 album of Schumann for Virgin (now part of Warner) had me from the very first notes. That’s, granted, never solely down to the performance at hand: It’s partly a matter of mood, a combination of intangibles and good fortune to have one of those moments where with the first chord you are transfixed with a smile and listen to a whole album without your thoughts ever straying. But Anderszewski’s opening of the first “Einfach” in the 1839 Humoreske op.20 did just that. The Humoreske is not only not a funny work (not that we’d necessarily expect that from Schumann, despite the work’s title), it is one of the more contemplative and wistful pieces, even for Schumann. (A least among the earlier works of Schumann, who tends to get darker and more delicious with age.) But even more telling than the gloomy disposition are the turn-on-a-dime mood-swings, the restlessness and how, without warning, it may turn to the lyrically waxing and back again. Not the among the ‘greatest hits’ of Schumann’s piano output, this is still the most conventional Schumann on this disc.

It then gets only better by the inclusion of two considerably lesser played works—the “Canonic Études for Pedal Piano”, which Anderszewski transcribed himself for solo piano, and the late, 1853 Gesänge der Frühe (“Songs of Morning”). Debussy loved the Études and wanted to rescue them from obscurity after the pedal piano—really just a device of practicing organ pedaling at one’s grand piano at home—went out of fashion and hence transcribed it for two pianos. Asked about whether he knew of, or had looked at, the Debussy transcription before transcribing it himself Anderszewski replied nicely to the point: “Yes… I heard the Debussy transcription. Don't like it at all. But very keen on transcriptions in general...” It shows. While I don’t share Mr. Anderszewski’s distaste for the Debussy transcription (recorded to wonderful effect by Tzimon Barto & Christoph Eschenbach), I adore this lighter, nimbler transcription just as much—just as I do appreciate the contrast that his quicker tempi bring to the work and which ‘infuses the stringency of Bach with all the romantic essence of Echt-Schumann.

The “Songs of Morning”, just about as devastating and torn as the “Ghost Variations” (his last lucid composition), are Schumann’s second to last work for piano. The calm opening seems to plunge deeper into the soul of their composer than even the most brazenly emotional of Schumann’s preceding works. This, along with other late works, was once derided as ‘showing the ensuing madness’ (a few months later Schumann jumped into the Rhine from whereon his life trailed sadly toward its end at the Endenich asylum). The work is filled with the desperate to embrace ‘everything and al’l—or at last Anderszewski’s interpretation is. And for as long as I listen, it makes this dark and bleak delight, not the flitting Schumann of the Papillions or Arabesque, the most satisfying, most beautiful Schumann to listen to. It is difficult to come up with a pianist better suited than Anderszewski to make that point.