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

available at Amazon
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.

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