Sunday, April 04, 2010

Sunday Classics: In Schumann's case, obsession wasn't necessarily a bad thing


Soprano Barbara Bonney sings the last three songs of Schumann's Dichterliebe, with Malcolm Martineau in Paris, 2001. The first and last of these songs, "Allnächtlich im Traume seh' ich dich" and "Die alten bösen Lieder," are among our selections below.

by Ken

I wasn't wildly happy when I saw the head I put on last night's preview staring at me: "A taste of Schumann the obsessive, in his piano works and songs." I don't want to take it back. There really is an obsessive quality to Schumann's prodigious output for the piano up to the point, on February 1, 1840, when he suddenly switched his attention to the art song, even more obsessively, for his famous Year of Song. And if there's a suggestion there that there may always have been an obsessive quality to Schumann which is related to the mental darkness that overtook him in the final years of a too-short life, well, I guess I meant that too.

The one thing I didn't mean, necessarily, is that obsession in the case of genius is necessarily a bad thing. I did try to stress that what's truly remarkable about the quantity of, first, piano music and, then, songs is the astonishingly high quality. I don't know that Schumann would have been capable of writing less compulsively in either form. I do know that we the beneficiaries of that compulsion would hardly have wished him to be more moderate in his creative outpouring.

Let's finish up our business from Friday night's preview. Here is the complete Schumann Piano Quintet (1842). We've already heard the first two movements. Now let's add the Scherzo and finale.

SCHUMANN: Piano Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44

i. Allegro brillante

Arthur Rubinstein, piano; Guarneri Quartet (Arnold Steinhardt and John Dalley, violins; Michael Tree, viola; David Soyer, cello). RCA/BMG, recorded Dec. 28-30, 1966

ii. In modo d'una marcia: Un poco largamente
(In the mode of a march: A little broadly)

Artur Balsam, piano; Budapest Quartet (Joseph Roisman and Jac Gorodetzky, violins; Boris Kroyt, viola; Mischa Schneider, cello). Bridge, recorded live at the Library of Congress, Dec. 18, 1953

iii. Scherzo: Molto vivace

Rudolf Serkin, piano; Budapest Quartet (Joseph Roisman and Alexander Schneider, violins; Boris Kroyt, viola; Mischa Schneider, cello). Columbia/CBS/Sony, recorded Sept. 10-11, 1963

iv. Allegro ma non troppo

Martha Argerich, piano; Dora Schwarzberg and Renaud Capuçon, violins; Nora Romanoff-Schwarzberg, viola; Mark Drobinsky, cello. EMI, recorded June 27, 2002

I guess last night I exercised an obsession of my own, with Vladimir Horowitz's seeming obsession with the lovely miniature, "Träumerei," from Schumann's piano suite Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood, 1838), which he loved nearly to death.

I hope one of these days perhaps we'll get a chance to hear Horowitz's own obsessive quality yielding happier results, because for all the craziness, there was genius at work in his playing. That said, we did get to hear some other sorts of performances of "Träumerei" last night. Still, even though you're probably sick of hearing it, I'd like to listen to it one last time -- for closure, let's say -- in this performance by the Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire, which distends the rhythms in the way that the Pianists Guild seems to consider obligatory, but somehow retains a feeling of childlike simplicity.

Nelson Freire, piano. Decca, recorded Dec. 18-22, 2002


This, surely the most celebrated phrase in the canon of music criticism, was Schumann the music critic's memorable celebration of Frédéric Chopin -- who was actually several months older than Schumann (and, alas, died even younger). Of course it's a phrase that might helpfully be retired except as related to a genius of the caliber of Chopin. (The obvious exception was Peter Schickele's inspired riff when the idea of his mythical P.D.Q. Bach, the Bach son who was intentionally forgotten, was still new and fresh. When Schumann, in "Professor" Schickele's telling, happened to encounter the music of the infamous P.D.Q.B,, his reaction was: "Hats back on, gentlemen, an imbecile.")

Maybe we need to be clearer about what I'm calling Schumann's obsessive composing. As I pointed out last night:
Robert Schumann's first 23 opus numbers, representing his entire published output up to the age of 30, are works for solo piano works, 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.

Those first 23 opus-numbered works, most of them collections of shorter works, include some of the mostly richly imagined treasures of the piano repertory: Papillons, the Davidsbündlertänze, the Toccata, Carnaval, the Symphonic Etudes, Kinderszenen, Kreisleriana, the Fantasy, the Arabeske, the Novelletten.

As for the obsession that replaced the piano-composing one, Eric Sams has noted, "In the twelve months beginning 1 February 1840 he wrote over 160 vocal works, including at least 135 of the 246 solo songs in the complete Peters Edition" -- roughly, the composer's Opp. 24-49, 53, and 57. It's always pointed out that 1840 was the year Schumann married Clara Wieck, but to him that didn't explain the complete change of compositional focus. He offered the intriguing theory that it was direct contact with Mendelssohn that shoved him into song production, concluding his case:
Of course there may have been many other influences at work in all this which cannot now be identified. It is conceivable too that the whole thing may have been no more than coincidence. But what seems to have happened is that one winter day in Leipzig in 1840 it came about, quite by chance and unawares, that the greatest living master of the Lied appointed his successor.

I promised last night that we would hear the particular gifts of both Horowitz and the eerily Horowitz-like Martha Argerich put to much more appropriate use than in "Träumerei." So let's turn to Schumann's Kreisleriana suite, written the same year as Kinderszenen (1838), but inhabiting a different musical world. Kreisleriana is a tribute to the strange fictional genius Johannes Kreisler, the composer created by the great German Romantic writer (and also composer) E.T.A. Hoffmann. This is one of those places where Schumann allowed his imagination to run wild, to which end he expected the pianist to bring ten weaponized fingers. But as with the monstrously demanding piano writing of Chopin, it's never about technique, which these apparent keyboard wizards simply took for granted. That wizardry is always put at the service of those two unparalleled musical imaginations.

I think we can get some sense of this by hearing just the opening and closing numbers of Kreisleriana, played first by Horowitz and Argerich, and then by our friends from last night Wilhelm Kempff and Claudio Arrau. We can hear Kempff, no youngster at the time he made this recording, sorely tried by the writing, while as I pointed out, Arrau -- also no youngster at this time -- had more sheer technical command than was often remembered.

SCHUMANN: Kreisleriana, Op. 16

No. 1, Äusserst bewegt (As animated as possible)
No. 8, Schnell und spielend (Fast and playful)

Vladimir Horowitz, piano. DG, recorded Sept.-Oct. 1985

Martha Argerich, piano. DG, recorded April 1983

Wilhelm Kempff, piano. DG, recorded February 1972

Claudio Arrau, piano. Philips, recorded March 1972

Next I thought we might hear the start and finish of Schumann's Symphonic Etudes, in fact a set of theme and variations. (The composer removed five variations from the original version, bringing the piece down to more manageable size. Some brave pianists restore those five pianists, including both Sviatoslav Richter and Arrau in the performances below.)

SCHUMANN: Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13

i. Theme
ii. Etude I: Un poco più vivo

Sviatoslav Richter, piano. Praga, recorded live in Prague, Dec. 12, 1956

Wilhelm Kempff, piano. DG, recorded February 1972

Claudio Arrau, piano. Philips, recorded October 1970

Etude XII: Finale: Allegro brillante

Sviatoslav Richter, piano. Praga, recorded live in Prague, Dec. 12, 1956

Wilhelm Kempff, piano. DG, recorded February 1972

Claudio Arrau, piano. Philips, recorded October 1970

Finally, two lovely little Schumann pieces that were favorites of Arthur Rubinstein, the Arabeske (1839) and the little "Vogel als Prophet" ("Bird as Prophet") from the Waldszenen (Forest Scenes, 1848-49).

SCHUMANN: Arabeske, Op. 18

Arthur Rubinstein, piano. RCA/BMG, recorded live at Carnegie Hall, Nov. 19 1961

Nelson Freire, piano. Decca, recorded Dec. 18-22, 2002

SCHUMANN: "Vogel als Prophet" ("Bird as Prophet"),
No. 7 of Waldszenen (Forest Scenes), Op. 82

Arthur Rubinstein, piano. RCA/BMG, recorded March 29, 1946

Jörg Demus, piano. Nuova Era, recorded in the early 1970s


Last night we heard Lotte Lehmann telling us (allowing for the 68-year time gap) how much she loves the songs of Schumann. We also heard Madame Lehmann sing the opening song of Schumann's wonderful Eichendorfff Liederkreis, the first "In der Fremde" (there's actually a second song of the same name within the cycle).

For starters, I've picked three additional songs from the Eichendorff Liederkreis ("the Eichendorff Liederkreis" to distinguish it from Schumann's Liederkreis, Op. 24, to poems of Heine -- the Heine Liederkreis). They happen to be consecutive, but there's really nothing sacrosanct about the published order of these songs.

"Waldesgespräch" ("Forest Conversation") tells of a forest encounter with "the witch Lorelei." It is, in other words, a Romantic ghosts-and-goblins tale in the tradition of Goethe's and Schubert's "Erlkönig." "Die Stille" is that anomaly here, a happy song (albeit very, very secretly happy), and "Mondnacht" a dreamily romantic gem.

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

3. "Waldesgespräch" ("Forest Conversation")
It's already late, it's already cold.
Why are you riding alone through the forest?
The forest is long, you're alone,
you lovely maiden! I'll lead you home!"

"Great is man's deceit and cunning.
My heart is broken with grief.
The hunter's horn roves here and there.
O fly! You don't know who I am."

"So richly adorned are horse and woman,
so wondrously beautiful the young form,
Now I know you -- God stay by me --
You're the witch Lorelei."

"You know me truly -- in lofty stone
my castle gazes down on the Rhine.
It's already late, it's already cold.
You'll never again leave this forest."

4. "Die Stille" ("The Quiet")
There's no one who knows or can guess
how happy I am, how happy!
Ah, if only one other knew it, only one,
no other person would know it.

It's not so quiet outside in the snow,
so speechless and secret are
not the stars on high,
as my thoughts are.

I wish I were a little bird,
and passed over the sea,
right over the sea and beyond
until I were in heaven.

5. "Mondnacht" ("Moonlit Night")
It was as if the sky had
gently kissed the earth.
so that she, in a glimmer of blossoms,
must now dream of him.

The breeze passed through the fields,
the ears of corn waved gently.
The woods rustled softly.
So starry clear was the night.

And my soul stretched
its wings out wide,
flew through the quiet landscape
as it flew toward home.

Felicity Lott, soprano; Graham Johnson, piano. IMP, recorded c1990

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

Hakan Hagegard, baritone; Thomas Schuback, piano. RCA, recorded No. 11-13, 1985

Now we have some selections -- first and last songs, and a couple of in-betweeners -- from yet another 1840 product, the cycle Dichterliebe (Poet's Love), in two rather spectacular performances, by tenor Fritz Wunderlich and by baritone Deitrich Fischer-Dieskau in his finest youthful voice. For curiosity I've thrown in a Fischer-Dieskau recording from 28 years later, where the canny veteran manages surprisingly well through careful handling and craft, to make, well, not the same effect, but still some sort of effect.

SCHUMANN: Dichterliebe (Poet's Love), Op. 48
[Song synopses borrowed from Wikipedia.]
1. "Im wunderschönen Monat Mai"
("In the wonderfully beautiful month of May")

[In beautiful May, when the buds sprang, love sprang up in my heart: in beautiful May, when the birds all sang, I told you my suffering and longing.]
11. "Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen"
("A youth loves a maiden")

[A youth loved a maiden who chose another: the other loved another girl, and married her. The maiden married, from spite, the first and best man that she met with: the youth was sickened at it. It's the old story, and it's always new: and the one whom she turns aside, she breaks his heart in two.]
14. "Allnächtlich im Traume seh' ich dich"
("Every night I see you in my dream")

[I see you every night in dreams, and see you greet me friendly, and crying out loudly I throw myself at your sweet feet. You look at me sorrowfully and shake your fair head: from your eyes trickle the pearly tear-drops. You say a gentle word to me and give me a sprig of cypress: I awake, and there is no sprig, and I have forgotten what the word was.]
16. "Die alten bösen Lieder"
("The old, unpleasant songs")

[The old bad songs, and the angry, bitter dreams, let us now bury them, bring a large coffin. I shall put very much therein, I shall not yet say what: the coffin must be bigger than the 'Tun' at Heidelberg. And bring a bier of stout, thick planks, they must be longer than the Bridge at Mainz. And bring me too twelve giants, who must be mightier than the Saint Christopher in the cathedral at Cologne. They must carry the coffin and throw it in the sea, because a coffin that large needs a large grave to put it in. Do you know why the coffin must be so big and heavy? I will also put my love and my suffering into it.]

Fritz Wunderlich, tenor; Hubert Giesen, piano. DG, recorded November 1965

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Jörg Demus, piano. DG, recorded Feb. 7-8, 1957

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Alfred Brendel, piano. Philips, recorded July 1985

Finally, let's listen to an old-time recital favorite, "The Two Grenadiers" -- if only for the excuse to hear the Chaliapin recording. Note how Andreas Schmidt and, even more, Olaf Bär in his interesting performance, try to take what they apparently think of as the artistic "high road," eschewing the song's overt barn-burning theatricality. Luckily, Chaliapin had no such concerns.

SCHUMANN: "Die beiden Grenadiere" ("The Two Grenadiers"), Op. 49, No. 1
Toward France headed two grenadiers,
who had been captured in Russia.
And when they came into the German quarter,
they let their heads hang.

Then they both heard the sad tale:
that France had been lost,
beaten and smashed, the valiant army --
and the emperor, the emperor captured!

Then the grenadiers wept together,
because of these woeful tidings.
The first one spoke: "How painful it is for me,
how my old wound burns!"

The other one spoke: "The song is over.
I too would like to die with you.
But I have a wife and child at home,
who without me will die."

"What do I care about a wife, a child?
I have far greater concerns.
Let them go beg if they're hungry --
my emperor, my emperor captured!

"Grant me, brother, a favor:
If I am now to die,
then take my body with you to France;
bury me in French soil.

"The cross of honor on its red ribbon
you are to lay on my heart;
give me my musket in my hand,
and buckle my saber on me.

"Thus will I lie and listen, silent,
like a sentinel, in my grave,
until I hear the roar of cannons
and the trotting of whinnying horses.

"Then will my emperor ride over my grave,
many swords will clash and flash.
Then will I rise armed from my grave,
my emperor, my emperor to guard."

Andreas Schmidt, baritone; Rudolf Jansen, piano. Hänssler, recorded September 1997

Olaf Bär, baritone; Helmut Deutsch, piano. EMI, recorded February 1996

[in Russian] Feodor Chaliapin, bass. Melodiya, recorded Oct. 11, 1921


The current list is here.

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