Benjamin Grosvenor plays Schumann, Schumann, and Brahms – Decca

by | Jun 16, 2023 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Benjamin Grosvenor plays Schumann, Schumann, and Brahms – Benjamin Grosvenor, piano – Decca 485 3945  (2/3/23, complete listing below) (85:49) [Distr. by Universal] ****:

Recorded 21-24 April 2022, this recital concentrates on the affinities among three stellar, Romantic personalities in music, Robert and Clara Schumann and their major disciple, Johannes Brahms. Grosvenor opens with the most impetuous of his selections, Robert Schumann’s 1838 eight-movement suite Kreisleriana, set in the spirit of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1815 collection of stories concerning an eccentric, wild and mercurial conductor, Johannes Kreisler. The idea of finding bridges from this musically kaleidoscopic offering from Schumann to his beloved Clara Wieck and her own responses, then on to their common protégé Brahms, imitating in his old age the early efforts of Schumann’s Op. 4 Intermezzos. Perhaps the key lies in the “love duet,” the 1839 F# Major Romanze from the Op. 28 triptych, that spoke to their mutual devotion. Always, in the Schumann ethos, “the nostalgia for the dream” exerts its psychological hegemony. Grosvenor notes the influence of Vladimir Horowitz upon his own conceptions of both Op. 16 and the Quasi variazioni Andantino de Clara Wieck that transformed into the “Concerto for piano without orchestra” of 185 forming a part of his Piano Sonata No. 3, Op. 14. 

Portrait Clara and Robert Schumann

Clara and Robert Schumann

The striking assertiveness of Grosvenor’s approach does not belie the extraordinary intimacy he can achieve in the slower sections of Kreisleriana, most often set in B-flat Major and infiltrated with Schumann’s soft alter-ego, Eusebius. Then there are decidedly manic episodes, such as No. 7 in C Minor, Sehr rasch, offset as it is by a placid coda in E-flat Major. The other rapid episodes, mainly in G Minor, display a kinetic virtuosity that hints that both Hoffmann and Schumann had Paganini in mind as the source for the potent, musical ego that dominates the occasion. The second movement strikes us for its diverse riches, an extended rondo in B-flat Major, marked Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch. Grosvenor investss character and color into this section, divided as it is by two contrasting intermezzos.

After the agitations and ballade-like grandeur of the last of the Op. 16, the Romanze, in its lyrical simplicity (on three staves) emerges as a tender lullaby. The flower-piece Blumenstück proffers a theme and variations on two motifs, seamlessly conjoined. The piece is too often overlooked for its companion, the ubiquitous Arabeske in C, Op. 18. Again, for many auditors, it was Vladimir Horowitz who first revealed the poetic charms of the piece. It, too, engages in polyphonic agitation, especially as Sebastian Bach forever insinuates his learned syle into Schumann’s fabric. In dire contrast, the Andantino casts a funereal, minor tonality shadow on the occasion, a poetic jeremiad whose bass grumblings surge with massive sonority from Grosvenor. The dramatic character of the piece unfolds, grimly resonant and resigned, almost Lisztian in its signature, farewell bell-tones, the fermata of which Grosvenor holds in thrall. 

A musical link-in-miniature, the Abendlied from Schumann’s 1849 piano duets entitled 12 Klavierstücke für kleine und große Kinder, presents an elegiac evening song in Grosvenor’s solo arrangement. Violinist Joseph Joachim often played the work with piano accompanist Johannes Brahms. Clara Schumann would include the piece as an encore in her concerts. Grosvenor’s trill assumes a lyricism of its own here. Once more, a theme of Robert Schumann, the first “colored leaf” from his Op. 99 Bunte Blätter, provides Clara Schumann with her own vehicle for improvisation, her 1853 Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann, Op. 20. Clara Schumann arranges the chorale-like theme to undergo a diverse number of hues and textures, including lyrical, right-hand filigree, thunderous octaves, canonic development, and bravura shifts of register. Clara juxtaposes a stormy episode against a disarming, diatonic study in parlando and legato. In the midst of the coda, the right hand quotes from Clara’s own Op. 3 Romance. It does well to recall, prior to Grosvenor’s interpretation of Brahms, that this same composer borrows from No. 4 of that same collection of Bunte Blätter for his 1854 Variations on a Theme of Schumann, Op. 9.  

Portrait Johannes Brahms, 1889, by C Brasch

Portrait Johannes Brahms, 1889
by C Brasch

By 1892, the aging Brahms had already condered formal retirement from composing, though his last set of keyboard opera concentrated on collected miniatures, what he called  “lullabies of my sorrows.” The Three Intermezzi, Op. 117 consist of pieces in ternary form, the first a setting of the Scottish lullaby, “Lady Anne Bothwell’s Lament,” set in E-flat Major that modulates to the minor mode. The second of the set opens in the E-flat Minor key, moving to a middle section of restrained, bitter power. The last of the set, in C# Minor, casts a bleak sensibility only a step away from post-WWII Berlin, via Kurt Weill. The middle section strives for a consolation denied. 

Caveat: some CD players may not accommodate the extended length of the program, and thereby lose the last of Op. 117. 

—Gary Lemco  

Grosvenor plays Schumann, Schumann, and Brahms:

Kreisleriana, Op. 16;
Romanze No. 2, Op. 28;
Blumenstück, Op. 19;
Andantino de Clara Wieck;
Abendlied, Op. 85/12;

Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann;

3 Intermezzi, Op. 117

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