SCHUMANN: Arabeske in C Major; Kreisleriana; Fantasie in C Major – Stephen Hough, piano – Hyperion

by | May 13, 2022 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

SCHUMANN: Arabeske in C Major, Op. 18; Kreisleriana, Op. 16; Fantasie in C Major, Op. 17 – Stephen Hough, piano – Hyperion CDA68363 (9/3/21) 70:07 [Distr. by PIAS] *****:

Recorded at Henry Wood Hall, London, June 24-26, 2020, this all-Schumann recital offers extraordinarily sensitive and stylistic realizations of three, crucial piano pieces. Beginning with the much-traversed Arabeske of 1839, Hough ventures into the two large canvases, first the 1838 response to the literary creations of both Jean-Paul Richter and E.T.A. Hoffmann, the Kreisleriana; and next, Schumann’s fusion of energies both musical and poetic, from Beethoven and Schlegel, respectively, for the C Major Fantasie of 1839.

On the mundane level of programming a Robert Schumann recital, no aspect seems unique. So, it remains for Hough to bring an illumined, thoughtful energy to pieces well established in the repertory. The rondo-like Arabeske, with its five sections that alternate an assertive Florestan and a dreamy Eusebius, communicate an impulsive, sometimes vehement urgency, almost martial in the episodes that separate the motivic ritornello. The thicker moments of scoring implicate Sigismond Thalberg in the three-hand effects achieved when the melody arises in the midst of the surrounding tissue. The poetic coda, gently nuanced by Hough, communicates “the nostalgia for the dream” that defines Schumann’s musical sensibility.

The character of Johannes Kreisler appears in the E.T.A. Hoffmann satirical fantasy The Life and Opinions of Tomcat Murr (1819-1821), a feline’s personal confessions intermixed with scattered pages of a supposed biography of Kreisler, an obsessive Kapellmeister, choral director, in an anonymous German town. In the course of Kreisler’s random, even ranting, written frustrations with incompetent musicians, he has superimposed the quirky opinions of the household cat, thus creating a most curious admixture of the fantastic, the grotesque, and the musically learned explorations the imagination might conceive. Schumann composed his suite in 1838 and dedicated the work to Chopin, dividing Kreisleriana into eight, moody and extreme sections of often contrasting emotions and approaches to form. 

From the opening toccata in D Minor, Äußerst bewegt (Extremely animated) to the more intimate, reflective Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch (Very inward and not too hastily) in B-flat Major, Schumann experiments with audacious harmonies – tending to gravitate to G Minor – and syncopated metrics that often blur the sense of bar lines. Schumann himself doubted the accessibility of this music, and his wife Clara, too, tended to select excerpts for public performance rather than risk audience incomprehension. Even so, the suite endures as a testament to that “Romantic Agony” we find in poets like Byron, the contest for supremacy in a divided consciousness, the very formula for Jekyll and Hyde or Nietzsche’s Dionysos and Apollo. Hough brings, alternately, a momentous sweep and meditative, songful introspection to his reading of the eight sections, close in spirit to what Vladimir Horowitz achieved for CBS (72 841), perhaps a bit tamer. The lovely scalar patterns in the Sehr aufgeregt and Sehr langsam (Very Agitated and Very Slow) sections testify to a natural lyricism in Schumann, buttressed by a thorough command of counterpoint. The more playful episodes, skittish and impulsive, often manic, enjoy that “kitten-on-the-keys” mentality that Hoffmann’s novel conveys. The C Minor seventh section, Sehr rasch (Very fast), embodies the affective dualism in Schumann perfectly, the frenetic opening contrasting with the palliative modulation into E-flat Major. Hough’s codas consistently ring colorfully with resolute authority.

The throes of emotional and physical separation from Clara Wieck in 1836 inform the etiology of Schumann’s 1839 Fantasie, whose music (cast in the three movements of a sonata) for the first movement he called “the most passionate I have ever composed; it is a profound lament on your account.” Coincidentally, Franz Liszt had planned to raise a monument to Beethoven in Bonn, and Schumann’s piece was to contribute to the costs. The work, dedicated to Liszt, bears some lines from the poet Schlegel: “Among all the sounds in earth’s many-colored dream/One soft note calls to the secret listener.” Besides the music’s allusions to Clara Wieck’s own compositions, Schumann quotes in the adagio coda of movement one a melody from Beethoven’s Op. 98 song-cycle An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved). The second movement march derives its impetus from Beethoven’s A Major, Op. 101 Sonata, while the last movement resounds with arpeggiated affects from the “Moonlight” Sonata, no less designated by Beethoven as “quasi fantasia.”  

Hough engages the opening foray of octaves and knotty counterpoints with impressive gusto, then allowing the “legendary” status of the second part ruminative and dramatic expanse. Alternately passionate, quirky and mercurial, the music’s visionary effusions assume a driven momentum – but whither? We must assume, via Schlegel, towards the one note, A, heard by Schumann’s secret listener, we feel must be his Clara. Hough declaims, once more before the coda, the announcement of the “legend” motif and its ensuing. Swirling figurations, until exhausted, the music dissipates into that imaginative realm where we are such stuff as dreams are made on. Hough follows Schumann’s directive to play the sturdy, second movement in E-flat Major, Mässig–Durchaus energisch, marches in moderate tempo, but not without thrusting, rhetorical emphasis. Schumann’s softer persona, Eusebius, emerges in the trio, reflective and somewhat whimsical, as if in touch with the Papillons of earlier days. The reprise and coda, first in bold syncopations, returns with the same audacity we associate with Schumann’s various marches against philistinism. The last movement Langsam getragen. Durchweg leise zu halten (To be taken, quietly throughout) must well have been a lesson to Brahms, with its slow descent to the home key of C Major by way of thirds, a device Brahms employs in his E Minor Symphony. Inward-looking and luminous in its patina, Schumann’s music moves to a chorale statement, the progress uttered twice. The dedicatee, Liszt, called the Fantasie “a grand composition,” which he intended to “make the utmost possible effect” in performance. Hough has helped to realize this ambition.

—Gary Lemco 


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