Saturday, April 03, 2010

Sunday Classics preview: A taste of Schumann the obsessive, in his piano works and songs


Horowitz in Moscow, April 1986: A wayward "Träumerei," but not the totally nutty performance he was accustomed to giving, as in the 1975 Carnegie Hall one below

by Ken

Robert Schumann's first 23 opus numbers, representing his entire published output up to the age of 30, are works for solo piano, an astonishing profusion. And then in 1840 -- February 1, to be exact -- his attention (one is tempted to use the word "obsession") switched to a form he had formerly scorned, the art song.

We're going to sample both of these remarkable bodes of work in tomorrow's Schumann post. Tonight I thought we'd sample one of each.

Our piano selection is hardly "representative" (whatever that might mean) of Schumann's piano writing. It's from the hard-not-to-love Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood) suite of 1838, in which Schumann attempts to look at the world through a child's eyes. And our designated excerpt, "Träumerei" ("Dreaming"), however unrepresentative it may be, is surely Schumann's best-known creation. It's one of the first "real" pieces of music any early piano student slogs through.

Of course the music's very simplicity conceals a remarkable feat of creativity. Now I suppose I'm imposing a preoccupation of mine on you, but I've long been fascinated by the preoccupation with Kinderszenen generally and "Träumerei" in particular of that mad titan of virtuosity, Vladimir Horowitz (1903-1989). It was his favorite encore piece, and just watching him play "Träumerei" above, I don't think it's possible to doubt his love for it.

It's a strange sort of love, though. As you can see, except for the "held" notes, basically all the "moving" notes are equal-value eighth notes. Now, no pianist plays them metronomically equally -- though it might not be such a bad thing if some of them were to start by exploring the notated note values before assuming they're wrong, and pushing and pulling them out of recognition. But what Horowitz does in his most extreme moods amounts to recomposition.

SCHUMANN: Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood), Op. 15

No. 7, "Träumerei" ("Dreaming")

Vladimir Horowitz, piano. RCA/BMG, recorded live, encore from the Carnegie Hall concert of Nov. 16, 1975

Vladimir Horowitz, piano. Sony, recorded live, final encore from Horowitz's Carnegie Hall "Return" concert of November 9, 1965

Vladimir Horowitz, piano. Columbia/CBS/Sony, studio recording, Nov.-Dec. 1962

I can't resist throwing in this studio recording by Martha Argerich (born 1941), the Argentinian-born firebrand who is probably the closest thing we've had to a second Horowitz, a fearless technician with enough imagination to make the technique serve musical purposes.

Martha Argerich, piano. DG, recorded April 1983

There are musicians, I guess, who just don't have much talent for simplicity. Tomorrow we're going to hear both Horowitz and Argerich doing what they were born to do -- and we'll also hear Argerich in a more surprising role. Meanwhile, just to regain our bearings, here are some more "normal" performances, by two solidly expressive pianists well schooled in the German tradition, Wilhelm Kempff (1895-1991) and the Chilean-born Claudio Arrau (1903-1991, and thus a close contemporary of Horowitz; Arrau's own technical prowess was in fact considerable, as we'll hear tomorrow).

Wilhelm Kempff, piano. DG, recorded February 1973

Claudio Arrau, piano. Philips, recorded March 1974


In the year beginning February 1, 1840, Schumann composed something like 135 songs (that's a baseline figure; perhaps we should say "at least 135 songs"), and as with those early years of piano-only composing, what's more remarkable than the quantity of the output is the quality.

Surely, if there was an Official Song Cycle of the Romantic Era, it would be Schumann's magical Op. 39 Liederkreis (which means nothing more than "song cycle"), settings of poems by Joseph von Eichendorff. (We have to be careful here, because there's also a Liederkreis, Op. 24, with settings of poems by Heine.)

Partly I chose the opening song of Op. 39 because we have it introduced here by none other than Lotte Lehmann, from a series of weekly 15-minute Lieder "recitals" she did for American radio in October-December 1941, when she was 52. I'm not the world's greatest Lehmann fan, especially with the voice in this stage of decline, but there's something irresistibly charming about these little radio recitals, perhaps her eagerness to share these songs she loved with her American listeners.

After Madame Lehmann we hear an admirable English tenor and Swedish baritone, both with quite lovely piano accompaniments. One obvious feature of Schumann's songs is accompaniments written by one of the great masters of writing for the piano.

SCHUMANN: Liederkreis (Song Cycle, poems by Eichendorff), Op. 39

No. 1, "In der Fremde"

In a Strange Land

From my homeland, behind the red lightning flashes,
from there come the clouds.
But Father and Mother are long dead;
no one there knows me anymore.

How soon, oh how soon will come the silent time,
when I too will rest, and over me
will rustle lovely forest solitude.
And no one will know me anymore here.

Introduced and sung by Lotte Lehmann, soprano; Paul Ulanowsky, piano. From her radio broadcast of Nov. 5, 1941

Ian Partridge, tenor; Jennifer Partridge, piano. BBC, recorded Aug. 2, 1971

Hakan Hagegard, baritone; Thomas Schuback, piano. RCA, recorded Nov. 11-13, 1985


Whew, just scratching the surface is going to require a lot of work. We'll return to last night's preview piece, the great Piano Quintet, and hear the whole thing. Then as promised we'll sample the piano works and the songs, and if we have any energy left, maybe even sample one of the symphonies.


The current list is here.

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