ROBERT SCHUMANN: Pieces for Oboe and Piano — Fantasiestücke for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 73; Adagio and Allegro in A-flat Major for Horn and Piano, Op. 70; Drei Romanzen for Oboe and Piano, Op. 94; Sonata No. 1 in A Minor for Violin and Piano, Op. 105 (transcribed by A. Utkin) –Alexei Utkin, oboe/ Igor Tchetuev, p. – Caro Mitis multichannel SACD CM 0042008 [Distr. by Albany], 49:00 **1/2:
With the exception of the First Violin Sonata, written in 1851, all the music on this disc was composed during Schumann’s busiest year, 1849. I recall reading, in the head note to an old Schirmer edition of some of Schumann’s piano music, that unfortunately (in the opinion of the writer) the composer’s busiest year produced little worthy music except for the Manfred Overture, Op. 115. This criticism, of course, is based on the old notion, perpetuated by Schumann detractors, that the last years of his life saw a steady decline in his mental faculties and a resulting decline in the quality of his music. Schumann’s feverish compositional activity toward the end of his career could even be chalked up to a certain sick compulsiveness to complete as much work as possible before darkness closed in on him altogether. (Actually, Schumann’s hectic compositional activity could be explained by the simple fact that in later years he had a large household to feed and clothe.)
Today, critics are coming around to the position that rather than betraying a creative decline, Schumann’s late works illustrate the composer’s constant desire to experiment and innovate. The fact that he was not always successful illustrated by the Third Piano Trio, which features some very new compositional tricks, though ultimately it’s less effective than the first two. On the other hand, Schumann apparently felt he hadn’t done quite his finest work in the First Violin Sonata, dedicated to Ferdinand David, Mendelssohn’s successor as leader of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. “When this experiment failed to satisfy him,” as Varvara Timchenko rightly notes, “he immediately wrote a second sonata, added the subheading ‘Grand’ and dedicated it to the renowned violinist.”
While the Second Sonata in D Minor, Op. 121, is indeed a much grander sonata than the first and is often thought musically more significant, the first is an elegant short work with some arresting features. Two nervously energetic outer movements frame a charming relaxed Allegretto. The first movement is passionate, deeply troubled, while the last movement is a leaping perpetuum mobile in which the two instruments chase each other up and down the scale in a fashion somewhere between manic and playful—before the end of the development ushers in a radiant new melody that stays in the mind once you’ve heard it. The recapitulation starts the race all over again, but then another surprise: in the coda, the passionate first melody of the opening movement returns like a reminiscence of past unhappiness, though it’s quickly dispensed with in the manic coda. Is there some hidden program behind this music? It certainly seems so, but since Schumann gave no inkling of it, we can only conjecture. This is powerful music in a small package (seventeen minutes) nonetheless.
I’m not sure that I would want to hear the piece very often in Alexei Utkin’s 2008 arrangement for oboe and piano. It may be pleasing to oboe players looking to expand their repertory of chamber works, and it may even thrill some true oboe enthusiasts, but there’s really no compelling reason to tinker this work that Schumann conceived for the violin. The passionate longing of the first movement and the scurrying interplay of the two instruments in the last movement are simply much better expressed on the violin.
I hate to be curmudgeonly, but I have pretty much the same gripe against the Fantasiestücke and the Adagio and Allegro in the performances here. While in both cases Schumann had a first choice in mind as far as instrumentation was concerned (clarinet and piano in the first, horn and piano in the second), he specified that these pieces could be played on other instruments as well—though oboe is not among them. I happen to think that Fantasiestücke sounds best on the cello: the soaring finale, marked Rasch und mit Feuer (“Quick and with fire”), makes its fullest impression on that instrument. Similarly, the horn alone lends the Adagio and Allegro the heroic posture I think Schumann wanted to convey in that work. The oboe—with its plaintive, intimate tone—just isn’t right for either piece, though it’s perfect for the more intimately scaled Drei Romanzen that Schumann originally conceived for (no surprise here) oboe and piano. Alexei Utkin and Igor Tchetuev offer up a beautiful performance, and I’m as happy with it as with any I’ve heard on disc. But given the fact that I’d much rather hear the other pieces on one of the designated instruments, and given the fact that at fewer than fifty minutes’ duration the disc offers poor value in any case, I’m afraid I can’t muster much enthusiasm for this recording.