A Couple of Men from 1810 – piano music of Robert Schumann and Frédéric Chopin – Findlay Cockrell, piano – Albany Records TROY1601/02 – 2 CDs (74:42, 78:02) *****:

Double CD of well selected and well played piano music by two giants of the Romantic Era who share a birth-year (1810) – Schumann and Chopin.

Though born in the same year, Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) was three months younger than Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849), and both died tragically young. Chopin has a much richer reputation as a composer for piano, whereas Schumann’s is more rounded, with symphonies, lieder, an opera and chamber works among his compositions. But Schumann’s work is heard on the first of the two discs here, perhaps because he wrote more in “groupings” or sets of short pieces, easier to list and catalog.

The first Schumann collection performed here is Fantasiestück  (or Fantasy Pieces) Op. 12, a collection of eight pieces, each under five minutes, and each with an expressive title ( in contrast to Chopin’s more generic ones – waltz, étude, prelude). They literally and musically take us on a journey of imagination – e.g. Aufschwung – soaring, Taumes Wirren – dream’s confusion, Grillen – whims) – inspired by one of the composer’s favorite authors, E. T. A. Hoffman.

The second collection is a more popular one – Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood) Op.15. These thirteen selections also have evocative titles, the very middle one (#7 Trȁumerai) being perhaps Schumann’s best known piano piece. Original title of the collection was Leichte Stück (Easy Pieces) but Schumann changed the name, and added the section titles after a conversation with his wife Clara during which she commented that he “sometimes seems like a child”. He referred to the section titles as “nothing more than delicate hints for execution and interpretation”.

The next three pieces on the disc broaden the picture of Schumann’s piano writing. First of three is a theme that Clara (also a composer and outstanding pianist) wrote and which Robert extended as an “as-if” variation (Quasi variazioni); second is the middle and most popular of three Romances (Drei Romanzen) Op. 28: third is a selection from the most well-known of Schumann’s “groupings” – Carnaval Op. 9. This is a collection of twenty-one short pieces representing masked revelers at the pre-Lenten festival, with Schumann giving musical representation to himself, friends and colleagues, and characters from the Italian commedia dell’arte. Appropriately, the segment played here is labelled Chopin.

This first of two discs concludes with Schumann’s  Sonata no.2 in G minor Op. 22. The performer, Findlay Cockrell provides excellent note on the selections, and comments on the markings from Schumann on how to play the coda near the end of the first movement – “as fast as possible”, and the closing section – “even faster”. Cockrell navigates it admirably.

The Chopin disc in this set is a sampling of twelve of  the more, and less, familiar of the composer’s immortal piano writing. Earliest, and shortest is the Étude in A minor Op. 10: last is the Mazurka in F minor  Op. 68, with two longer pieces (Fantasie Op. 49, and Polonaise-Fantasie Op. 61 (both 12:26 in duration) arranged among the dozen. The performer takes on the challenge, as he did in a 2010 concert, of including on this disc, one each of the dozen types or genres in which Chopin wrote.

The program notes include a mini-tutorial by the performer on the name-categories of Chopin’s piano music. Two stories are worth repeating. One is the Nocturne, meant to evoke the quiet of the night. Cockrell selects the G major, Op. 37, no.2 during which the composer moves through 21 changes of tonality (13 in one 12 measure passage!) in a piece of 5:35 duration – illustrating the Chopin’s supreme command of chromatic harmony. The second story, of many in the notes, is about the Mazurka in F minor Op.68, no.4, published posthumously, one of more than fifty Mazurkas Chopin wrote. This piece was dictated from his death-bed, and he directed that the final words be “da Capo senza  Fine”  (or “to the top without end” or, as the writer/performer puts it “go back to the beginning over and over and never stop playing” suggesting Chopin may be saying that he is dying, but his music will never stop.  And true to his words, and Chopin’s intention, the performer fades out during the repeated da Capo’s that conclude this disc.

Findlay Cockrell, the pianist on these discs, is a long-time teacher at the University at Albany N.Y. having joined their faculty in 1966 and retiring after forty years. Over eighty now, he continues to record and perform, calling himself a “regional artist”. He’s not well known outside the state capitol, but has three recordings with Albany records, and about the same number under his own label.

It may be typical of Albany recordings, but there is no indication anywhere in the booklet or on the case where and when this recording was made. Nevertheless it is a fine listening, and reading, experience.

— Paul Kennedy