ROBERT SCHUMANN: Adagio and Allegro for horn and piano, Op. 70; Märchenbilder for viola and piano, Op. 113; Fantasiestücke for clarinet and piano, Op. 73; Märchenerzählungen for clarinet, viola, and piano, Op. 132; Drei Romanzen for oboe and piano, Op. 94; Violin Sonata No. 1 in A minor, Op. 105 – The Nash Ensemble – Hyperion CDA67923 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi], 58:28 ****:
Most of this music has been recorded and recorded again, and Schumann groupies will have their favorite recordings of each piece. The concept behind this album is giving the individual members of England’s Nash Ensemble their time to shine. As such, the disc largely succeeds and provides a nice overview of Schumann’s later chamber music, much of it with a decidedly programmatic bent. Schumann is one of those Romantic composers who was torn between the pull of Classical absolute music and the type of program music pioneered by the likes of Berlioz, Liszt, and Saint-Saëns. Those programmatic tendencies inform Schumann’s famous sets of character pieces for the piano, even if, as he confessed, he came up with his clever and compelling titles for the pieces after they were composed. The titles of Schumann’s chamber works in this vein are the giveaway: Märchenbilder (“Fairy Tale Pictures”), Fantasiestücke (“Fantasy Pieces”), Märchenerzählungen (“Fairy Tales”).
As with other so-called Classical-Romanticists like his successor Johannes Brahms, the programs attached to the individual pieces in these collections are not graphic or pointed in any way. The fairy tales and fantasies tell a story, but what that story is we can only guess. So we are left with a succession of contrasted moods, which in Schumann’s finest works in the genre, such as the Fantasiestücke, are appealing and satisfying indeed.
I’m a great lover of Schumann’s chamber music, a love that isn’t universally shared, but sometimes I wonder if he isn’t at his best in works such as the aforementioned Fantasiestücke, where he doesn’t overtax his strained sympathies for and mastery of sonata-allegro form. Certainly, Fantasiestücke is a wonderful work expertly written for the two instruments (I actually prefer it played on cello rather than oboe) and drawing on the finest reserves of Schumann’s lyricism. It starts with a poignant slow movement marked Zart und mit Ausdruck (“Tender and with epression”) that should pull a tender cord or two. The second movement, Lebhaft, leicht (“Lively, light”), lifts the clouds very effectively. But the gem is the final movement, a gallant, impassioned piece that recalls Schumann’s Aufschwung (“Soaring”) from his earlier piano Fantasiestücke, Op. 12. I believe that if you want to know the essence of German musical Romanticism, you’ve got to hear the last movement of Schumann’s Opus 73 Fantasiestücke.
If I’m not as partial to Schumann’s other chamber works with programmatic ties, they are mostly very satisfying as well. It’s been a while since I’ve heard Märchenbilder, and I was pleasantly surprised at how fine a work it is, especially the last two movements, which introduce a startling contrast between fast and furious and slow and melancholy. The last movement is one of the most tender that Schumann ever penned.
Then there is that other side of Schumann’s genius, the Classical, which didn’t always catch him at his best, though here we have two works in that vein which I think admirably represent Schumann the Classical-Romanticist. The Adagio and Allegro has a flat-out gorgeous introduction that showcases all the sultry, crooning beauty of the French horn. After this, Schumann plunges into an especially headlong sonata-allegro that recalls the athleticism of Beethoven’s Horn Sonata of 1800, but updated to the passionately Romantic musical world of 1848. For me, this is Schumann at the top of his form.
If the First Violin Sonata isn’t quite in the same league, it’s a pretty strong little work, quite compact compared to Schumann’s second effort in the genre, which many prefer over the first. I’m partial to the Sonata No. 1, with its brooding first movement; tender, fitfully troubled slow movement; and canonic moto perpetuo finale, which insinuates one of Schumann’s most gorgeously shimmering melodies into the development section. If you haven’t heard the work, I think you’ll be moved by it.
As I mentioned earlier, all of this music has been recorded widely before, some by the most eminent soloists and chamber players before the public today. How do the individual members of the Nash Ensemble acquit themselves in these pieces? Very well for the most part, I’d say. As I noted, I favor the cello anyway in Schumann’s Opus 73, and Richard Hosford’s playing here seems a little tart and lean compared to other clarinetists I’ve heard. It’s a good performance, but there are certainly finer around. Great hornists have essayed the Adagio and Allegro on disc in the past, but I find Richard Watkins’ performance very attractive in its own right. His playing is assured, and he conveys the wildly contrasted emotional states of the two movements perfectly.
I’m happy, too, with Gareth Hulse’s Drei Romanzen. He has an elegant tone and fine sympathy for this tender music. I’m happy as well with his collaboration with Hosford and superb violist Lawrence Power in Märchenerzählungen. I can’t remember enjoying a performance of this work more.
Again, great violinists have tackled the Violin Sonata No. 1, and while I’m have fond memories of the very different but wonderful approaches of Gidon Kremer (DGG) and Isabella Faust (CPO), Marianne Thorson’s is a fine performance, a little low voltage, perhaps, but well played and with a special feeling for that grand melody in the last movement development section. By the way, I haven’t mentioned pianist Ian Brown yet, but he is a highly reliable constant throughout the program, as I expected from other Nash Ensemble recordings I’ve sampled.
With a typically fine, intimate recording from Hyperion, this collection may not represent the best individual performances of Schumann’s works in all cases, but the program itself is so attractive and the performances so earnest and committed that I find this CD very recommendable, especially for those seeking an introduction to Schumann’s chamber music apart from the trios, quartets, and the ubiquitous Piano Quintet.
Another volume of the recording legacy of Szigeti…