SCHUMANN: Carnaval, Op. 9; Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6 – Alessandra Ammara, piano – Arts Music multichannel SACD 47755-8, 69:22 [Distr. by Albany] ****1/2:
Since Alessandra Ammara’s recording of Schumann’s Album for the Young has garnered critical praise, I’ve wanted to hear her Schumann playing for myself. The current disc can only help to advance her bona fides as an advocate for the composer. It’s especially thoughtful of her (or of her producer) to program two works that make a natural pairing although, except in omnibus collections, they rarely appear together on disc. Surprising, since Schumann himself made the connection in writing to his future wife, Clara Wieck, in 1838: “You haven’t looked deeply enough into the Davidsbündlertänze. I think they are completely different from Carnaval. They are like faces to the masks.”
Schumann was reacting to a letter from Clara in which she told him that she had finally found time to play the work, which Schumann had completed the year before. She opined that the work seemed to her too much like Carnaval, which she preferred. Clara’s opinion has been shared by just about everybody since the two works were written because Carnaval is far and away the more popular work. However, Davidsbündlertänze seems to be gaining traction with pianists at least, given the number of times it has appeared on disc lately. ArkivMusic.com lists 52 available recordings, of which a substantial number were recorded in the last few years. Pianist Angela Hewitt, in her notes to her recent Hyperion recording, writes that she would rather play Davidsbündlertänze ten times than hear Carnaval once.
Hewitt finds that the former work speaks more to heart issues and even embraces a sense of tragic suffering, which had been the lot of both Schumann and Clara since her father—Friedrich Wieck, Schumann’s former piano teacher—had forbade the pair to see each other. We all know how that turned out, but in 1837-38, Schumann poured out his heart in a number of works that reflect the sad effects of his separation from Clara. Understandably on a couple of scores, Schumann includes as a motto a theme of Clara’s taken from her Mazurka, Op.6 (which the notes to this recording wrongly identify as Op. 5). It unifies the work and subtly underlies all the individual character pieces in Davidsbündlertänze; it is a remembrance of Clara both as love of his life and as spiritual partner in the League of David, the mythical body of likeminded creative figures that Schumann imagined would wage war against the cultural philistinism of the day.
In Carnaval, too, there is a motto theme that undergirds the work, and in both pieces there is a cyclic revisiting of earlier episodes. In Carnaval, it’s the brilliant music of the Préambule that launches the finale, characteristically a march of the David League against the Philistines (Marche des Davidsbündler contra les Philistins). In sharp contrast, in Davidsbündlertänze, it’s the deeply inward-looking music of the second piece, marked Innig, that returns in the penultimate piece, Wie aus der Ferne (“As if from Afar”). As Roberto Prosseda says in his notes to this recording, “The immanent melancholy of dance No. 2. . .gradually turns into tragedy, finally reaching an impassioned epilogue, apparently conclusive and irrevocable at the end of the penultimate dance. And yet after the final B minor chord another dance unexpectedly springs to life: the last one, in C major, a sort of waltz in an unreal climate, beyond the realms of this earth. The misgivings, the torments the passions are now raised to a still higher spiritual plane. What was supposed to be an ending becomes at the same time a new beginning. . . .” As in his Papillions of 1832, Schumann ends his “dance party” with the clock striking midnight in a series of Cs in the bass register, but here, the clock seems to announce a new day, when currently undreamed of happiness will be possible.
Alessandra Ammara plays these final pages of Schumann’s score with great sympathy and a natural understanding for what is at stake here. It’s a lovely performance, as is the whole of her rendition of Davidsbündlertänze. Given the nature of the program, through which Schumann hoped to strip away the polite masks to really get down to cases, a fine performance must explore the emotional turbulence of this work, which creates such different facets as the restlessly impassioned fourth piece marked Ungeduldig (“Impatiently”) and the ineffably sad sixth piece (Nicht schnell). Ammara traverses the emotional peaks and valleys of this work with understanding and a firm command of the virtuoso demands of the music.
Her Carnaval is a very good performance as well, but because competition in this work is so much fiercer and also, perhaps, because it engages her a little less emotionally, I find her performance just a touch lacking in poetry—but just a touch. Certainly, the more tenderly lyrical pieces aren’t slighted; her Chopin has as much grace as any. But still, I wouldn’t place this at the very top of my list of recorded Carnavals, while I would do so for Ammara’s wonderful Davidsbündlertänze.
As I’ve come to expect, the piano sound that the Arts Music engineers capture is big, robust, truthful. So big in surround-sound, in fact, that I found I had to cut back on the volume until I found just the right level for what I thought of as faithful reproduction. All in all, it’s the right sound for capturing Ammara’s big-hearted performance of these central works of the piano repertoire. Very much recommended!
— Lee Passarella