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Dip Your Ears, No. 97 (Carolin Widmann’s Reference Schumann Sonatas)

available at AmazonR.Schumann, Violin Sonatas,
C.Widmann & D.Várjon
ECM New Series 2047
Before receiving ECM’s new disc of the three Schumann Violin Sonatas, I’d almost forgotten how wonderful these works are. Violinist Carolin Widmann (sister to the clarinetist/composer Jörg Widmann) reminds me vividly and energetically of that fact.

There is neither a dearth nor glut of recordings. For one, you really want a complete set of them—including the Third Sonata, (new Grove says WoO27, the Bärenreiter and Schott Urtext scores say WoO2), not just opp. 105 and 121. The last work Schumann composed before he decomposed three years later, it’s a sonata spotted with inspired, echt-Schumann moments. It took its final shape when Schumann added two more movements to the two (second and fourth movement) that he had already contributed to the “FAE-Sonata”—the sonata that he, Brahms (third movement), and Albert Dietrich (first movement) co-wrote for the birthday of Joseph Joachim.

Widmann and pianist Dénes Várjon are not household names, although collectors of Hungaroton releases might be familiar with the latter as part of the Takács Piano Trio and piano partner of Miklós Perényi. This recording shows Widmann and Várjon as fabulous musicians who are—particularly important in this repertoire—very well matched. Fleet and spunky, finding a good balance between assertive and lyrical, without overdoing either, Carolin Widmann navigates through sonatas every bit as securely as colleagues Marwood, Kremer, Faust & Co.

Gidon Kremer, who recorded the first two sonatas with Martha Argerich (DG), floats above the music, his slightly abbreviated phrases and beautifully contained violin sound seemingly unconcerned by gravity. Underneath him (sonically, though not interpretively) Argerich is her tempestuous best, bursting out at the seams, eager and independent minded. The sonatas becomes two stories, Kremer’s and Argarich’s, and it’s ever titillating. Tempos change from one second to another, and movements like the third of op.105 (“Lively”) run along like mice on tip-toes. It’s a terrific way to interpret Schumann and even “incomplete” that disc should be on every well-stocked Schumann shelf.

available at Amazon
Schumann, Violin Sonatas 1-3,

Faust, Avenhaus

available at Amazon
Schumann, Violin Sonatas 1-3, Malikian, Kradjian

available at Amazon
Schumann, Violin Sonatas 1-3,

Koh, R.Uchida

available at Amazon
Schumann, Violin Sonatas 1 & 2, Kremer, Argerich
Isabelle Faust and Silke Avenhaus on CPO offer all three sonatas and excellent performances, making it the ECM disc’s primary competition. Like Kremer, Faust has a tendency towards clipped phrases, but her touch is not as soft as Kremer’s which gives her consistently fast readings a trace of aggression and restlessness. No one plays the 2nd movement of op.121 so fast, though Widmann and Várjon come close and are even more rhythmically incisive. The dry acoustic allows for all details to come out, the balance between the instruments is perfectly even.

Compared to those accounts, Maria Egelhof and Mathias Weber (Thorofon) sound merely competent and sometimes even flatfooted (better in op.121 than op.105), as do Alban Beikircher and Benedikt Koehlen (ArteNova), who, however, delight with a stunning slow movement in op.121, the closely recorded pizzicato beginning being particularly delightful.

Widmann/Várjon meanwhile are a more cohesive unit than any of the couples above. They are the most flexible with tempos, allowing themselves time to indulge (3rd movement of op.105 or 1st movement of op.121) and really stepping on it, too (2nd movement of op.121, Scherzo of WoO2). Widmann’s tone is particularly soft, her touch more supple even than Kremer’s. When fortissimo is asked for, she remains sonorous with no hint of screeching. And for the gorgeous third movement of op.121, they have something truly special in store. It begins with Carlolin Widmann’s pizzicato that barely sounds like pizzicato and more like a spiccato sulla tastiera. It’s the most gentle way you’ll ever hear this movement opened—slow, but melodious and with a forward momentum that gracelessly plucked notes could never muster. According to Widmann, who is very fond of exploring new ways of treating pizzicatos lovingly, that movement started out as a casual after-Dinner jam session but was surreptitiously recorded by Manfred Eicher who sensed that something beautiful was going on. It was, said Widmann, a moment of music-making that comes very rarely; that it doesn’t get any better that. She was talking about the moment itself, but the same could be said about the result.

Coincidentally it’s also the movement that works best in the resonant, not to say cavernous, Auditorio Radio Svizzera in Lugano. The acoustic is delightful bordering lush to these ears—for the most part. Friends of a dry acoustic, though, might find the natural reverb of the ECM recording to be testing their limits. Both instruments come to the ears from a little further back than the closer recorded recordings of Kremer & Faust.

It’s my favorite recording of these works now, but it’s not perfect. What I find somewhat objectionable is the soft rumble in the bass that’s caused by every stomped foot, heavily pressed pedal, and every soundly rung low note on the piano. These low, ambient sounds feel as if someone upstairs ran about barefoot. On headphones that’s not a problem, nor at low levels, but with bass-rich speakers at neighbor-unfriendly levels it can be rather distracting. Fortunately that’s but a small caveat in light of all the goodness contained on this disc.


E said...

Jens, have you heard Tharaud's new Satie collection? Pretty amazing stuff (especially the paper-on-piano-strings tracks and the duets), but tell me I'm not insane: at very high volumes, on headphones, I hear that strange audio artifact almost constantly, as in Tharaud's Bach CD! What the hell is that sound?? The piano pedal???

Going out of mind,

PS - Lebrecht really liked the new Tennestedt Beethoven 9 disc (from a live recording in 1992 or so), out in Europe now and in US soon-- definitely post your thoughts on that if and when you form any. It's this long, wild, wooly, 19th century Ninth that is basically the opposite of what you'd expect any Ninth released in 2009 to be (in other words, the opposite of Paavo Vänskä Jaarvi Ikea "modern" Ninths).

jfl said...

For what it's worth: Lebrecht is the very, very last person from which I'd take my recommendations... but if I happen to like it, also (takes a lot for me to get excited about a LvB9th, though), I will make note.

I'll listen to the Bach with headphones at unhealthy levels later tonight... (and do the same with the Satie once I have it) and then either confirm the noise or your insanity. :-)

E said...

Ooh, snap on Lebrecht!

Thanks, man--When your sanity is in doubt, turn to a classical music critic :)

jfl said...

Your sanity is confirmed, btw., if--what I assume--you meant the velvety fuh-tah that can be rather dominant (but apparently only on good headphones) in some pieces. That's indeed the pedal (more precisely: the pedal dampening) that you hear.

E said...

Thanks! It's a shame-- I've only heard this over-recorded pedal on discs from the last few years (Tharaud and Stadtfeld especially). But now that I know, I will limit these guys to speakers (on which I don't tend to hear the pedal) and cheap headphones.

jfl said...

On Tharaud it's too bad. Stadtfeld: Why would you listen to that in the first place. :-)