“Autour de ROBERT SCHUMANN” = CLARA SCHUMANN: Trois Preludes et Fugues; BRAHMS: 7 Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann; SCHUNCKE: Grand Sonata in g minor; R. SCHUMANN: Toccata in C; Gesanege der Fruehe – Sylviane Deferne, piano – Doron

by | May 22, 2015 | Classical CD Reviews

Autour de ROBERT SCHUMANN = CLARA SCHUMANN: Trois Preludes et Fugues, Op. 16; BRAHMS: 7 Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, Op. 9; SCHUNCKE: Grand Sonata in g minor, Op. 3; R. SCHUMANN: Toccata in C, Op. 7; Gesanege der Fruehe, Op. 133 – Sylviane Deferne, piano – Doron DRC 5035, 76:04 (7/1/11) [Distr. by Albany] ****: 

Recorded for Radio-Canada 13-15 June 1995, this compilation by Swiss pianist Sylviane Deferne celebrates the so-called “Schumann circle” that often gathered at the Kaffeebaum, Leipzig in the 1830s.  Besides the presence of the familiar spirits of Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, the appearance of Louis Schuncke (1810-1834) likewise illuminated Robert Schumann’s creative environment, and the short-lived Viennese pianist and composer would be the dedicatee of the punishing Toccata in C Major. Schuncke, reciprocally, dedicated his Grande Sonata, Op. 3 (1833) to Robert Schumann, who proclaimed the piece as Schuncke’s best composition. The Clara Schumann exercises in polyphony derive from both Clara and Robert’s jointly studying counterpoint in 1845 sessions devoted to their mutual admiration of J.S. Bach.

Clara Schumann’s Three Preludes and Fugues bear a family resemblance to Robert Schumann’s own Op. 13 Symphonic Etudes, although the fugal elements resemble fervent toccatas in polyphonic voices. The second of the preludes enjoys a real sense of melody, a romantic lyric that could be attributed to Robert or to Liszt. Its attendant fugue has a dark cast, and its thick chromatics presage much of Franck. The third prelude proffers as much canonic imitation as its succeeding fugue, although the latter’s affect remains intimately subdued.

Brahms conceived his 1854 Variations on a Theme of Schumann – from the Op. 99 Bunte Blaetter – as a consolation to Clara Schumann at the time of son Felix’s birth, with Clara already besieged by Schumann’s suicide attempt and the effects of mental disorder. Allusions to the Schumann cast of literary characters abound with hints from Kreisler, Eusebius, Florestan, and Master Raro. By incorporating the progression C-B-A-G#-A, Brahms included Robert’s pet scale for Clara herself. The piece unfolds in the form of a melancholy rhapsody, beset by intricate canons. Deferne respects the solemn intimacy of the variations, which, although occasionally aggressive in virtuoso style, remain staid and refined, a special homage to a spirit whose time in the physical world has passed away.

The Schumann Toccata in C Major (c. 1832) testifies to the kind of bravura Schumann wished to share with Thalberg and Kalkbrenner. The sheer velocity and dynamic impetus of the piece – especially under the fierce hands of Deferne – camouflage the intricate Bach influence in voice-leading and suavity of transition.

The 1853 Songs of Dawn (dedicated to poet Bettina Brentano), Schumann’s last-completed work for solo piano, assign their five-movements a grund-gestalt from three notes in the D Major triad. Having signed his name Diotima in his diaries – after the character in Plato’s Symposium – Schumann simultaneously alludes to a verse by Hoelderlin. The use of plagal cadences suggests the breaking of dawn, while the B Minor and F-sharp Minor movements immediately suggest Brahms of the late solo pieces. That Deferne performs these oft-neglected pieces with an erotic delicacy should surprise none who recall that Socrates claims that Diotima taught him the theory of love.

The 1832 Grande Sonata in G Minor by Schuncke evolves much in the Mendelssohn and Schubert style, sounding much like one of the latter’s Impromptus, especially D. 935, No. 1. The four-note motif, a much softer version of the Beethoven motto, rings in a development section that seems less concerned with traditional sonata-form than with color contrasts, later tinged with canonic imitation. The scaling of the piece towards a large crescendo and coda hints more of Liszt. A light, brief, fluttering Scherzando follows which demonstrates Deferne’s supple work in octave runs, syncopes, and low trills that we might attribute to Grieg. The slow movement more than any other section resonates with Schumann-like conceits, proceeding by a lyrical, parlando style with a sturdy, if sometimes unimaginative, bass line. The last movement turns to the bravura dance or etude mode we know from Mendelssohn and Weber.  Plenty of double octaves and whirling filigree testify to Deferne’s fleet fingers and light touch. The middle section resembles Schumann in a meditative mood. The music would likely make an excellent competition piece, and Deferne would likely win.

—Gary Lemco


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