Tag Archives: piano sonata

An Intrinsic Understanding of Schumann’s Style

I have often despaired at the few recordings of this magical work there were in the catalogue, even fewer found its true voice. That said, you know you’re in for a treat when, from the first note, you are convinced that, at least for the present, there is no other way it could be performed. This is my immediate reaction to Lief Ove Andsness‘ performance of Robert Schumann‘s “Piano Sonata no 1 in f sharp minor”. There are far to few recorded performances like this and far to many where you wish the performer were more comfortable with the style.

I truly love this work. Despite the fact that it is so often critisised as being disjointed and awkward (and I disagree vehemently!) Andsnes manages to make it sound like a sonata should; that is a long essay or novella on his musical subject. The sonata begins with what Schumann called a fandango, but unlike the introductions of Haydn other classical period composers, it is no short introduction but a short piece by itself – though I would not extract it and play it as such. It has its own discrete beginning and end, and that is one of the main differences between Schumann’s essay in sonata form and what we expect from the classical form.

The work was written in the time period between 1837-1838 along with Carnival, the Davidsbundlertänze, Kreisleriana, the G minor sonata and the Fantasy which Andsnes plays on this recording as well. The works all, by Schumann’s own words, have one subject; Clara Wieck, his intended bride. It is likely not an overstatement to say that there has never been such an outpouring of love, passion and friendship directed at one person in music! Everything is there, all his thoughts, innermost feelings—the things most of us keep hidden deep inside. There is a kind of clear, incisive and overwhelming honesty in Robert Schumann‘s writing. It rushes over you like the ocean’s waves as the tide does as it rushes towarads high tide. You hear the ebb and flow, the ever-rising tide and you know you will soon be enveloped in it. You do not run in fear, you wait for it to happen—enjoy, love it, and defend it. Defend it because it has its enemies—Philistines as Schumann called them. This sonata has not had such a sympathetic exponent in a long while.

Maurizio Pollini’s performance on Deutsche Gramophon is usualy thought of as the best performance available (and it is still in the catalogue, should you like his cool, cerebral performances), however, his is a cerebral reading of this work and it fails ultimately because it misses the direct appeal to the poet’s inner feelings which characterize the romantic poets and writers of this period. You will not find Ritter Gluck sitting quietly beside you, nor will you find the flights of fantasy contained in E.T.A. Hoffmann‘s Fantasiestücke. This is where Lief Ove Andsnes succeeds brilliantly, and Pollini fails.
The second movement of the f sharp minor sonata is an almost literal translation of a song Schumann wrote some years eariler “An Anna”. Andsnes plays it exquisitely, evevn bettter than the Arrau recording of it I owned on vinyl.

The Scherzo is where Mr. Andsnes shines. The long passages where Schumann’s writing is obviously a dialogue between the two hands, are particularly convincing. There is a real dialogue happening in Andsnes’ playing. He doesn’t merely play the notes, he imbues them with meaning just as Schumann thought the performer should do. Just listen to the recitative-type Intermezzo which interrupts the Scherzo to hear an absolutely convicing reading of this music.

The transition into the last movement can be problematic, but Andsnes is completely convincing here to. The recitative which again interrupts the last movement is convincing in Mr. Andsnes hands, he makes this movement sound as if it really belongs to the work as a whole. One wishes that more pianists would play Schumann’s piano music with such sympathy and understanding.

Schumann’s writing is often shocking in the way it moves from idea to idea, sometimes hardly finishing before beginning another—leaving the listener cut off in mid-sentence from the idea. This was not accidental. It surely is another sign of Schumann’s fascination with Hoffmann’s writing and ideas about the Romantic movement’s rejection of the stale, but at that time, unenlightened enlightenment ideals. Andsnes does not shy away from these phrases even when they seem to fly off past the end, as if cut off in mid-sentence. This is most obvious in the second movement of the Fantasy. This is a treacherous movement for any pianist, not just the legendary ending, but each phrase needs careful calculation so as not to miscalculate the virtuoso ending Schumann devised. This is one case where a note perfect ending is quite serendipitous! It is almost impossible to play perfecftly in a live performance. All those not perfect perfromances you hear on CD have had multiple takes or have been edited!

Andsnes plays this movement as well as any I’ve heard and if this were a live performance I’d be tempted to leap to my feet applauding. The two works on this CD make an intersting pair. One, the Fantasy, Schumann called a “deep lament for Clara..” expecting that he would never marry her. The other, Kreisleriana, written after Clara’s acceptance but before the acutal wedding, Schumann writes to Clara “.. you will hear yourself in every bar …”. And that you will for Schumann used the theme from Nocturne from Clara Weick’s own composition “Soirées Musicales” as the theme for the first movement. With it, he creates magic. The movement is a fascinating study in almost but not quite being in C major. He withholds any resolution to the tonic key until the very last chord. By then you ache to hear it.

You won’t go wrong choosing Andsnes version of these two masterpeices. I will most certainly be looking for more of Andsnes Schumannn recordings. He has an intrisic understanding of this composer.