SCHUMANN: Piano Music = Piano Sonata No. 1 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 11; Kreisleriana, Op. 16; LISZT: Apres Une Lecture de Dante – Helene Grimaud
Regis RRC1240, 77:31 [Distr. by Qualiton] ****:
Only a month ago, in December, I reviewed Helene Grimaud (b. 1969) in the music of Brahms, as it had become typical in the early career of this French pianist to eschew her native Gallic tradition for more Teutonic climes. These performances of Schumann and Liszt derive from 1987 inscriptions originally made for the Denon label. Even at eighteen, Grimaud evinced a natural affinity for the Romantics, her renditions fiery and stylistically fervent, her technique colossal.
The 1833-1835 Schumann F-sharp Minor Sonata–a love letter to his future wife Clara Wieck– reveals its mercurial agitated character, the first movement liquid and edgy, based on a fandango motif Clara had conceived in 1832 as “Dance of the Phantoms.” Schumann wrote his sixteen-year-old inamorata that the sonata was :”a cry from my heart to yours.” The stormy movement waxes and ebbs in emotional contrasts, presented under the dual aegis of Schumann’s alter-egos, Florestan and Eusebius. The A Major “Aria” second movement, too, takes its cue from a song of 1828, and quixotically, it bears the marking “without passion but expressive.” The Scherzo is wrought of one waltzing kernel, vivacious, balanced by two stately trio sections that seem illuminated by their high registration over an ostinato bass. A weirdly agonized recitativo section serves as a transition to the da capo. The last movement engages Grimaud in orchestral effects, bass tremolos, and staccati marked quasi-pizzicato in block chords. Spacious and almost-too-serious, the writing has Grimaud exercise studied improvisatory passagework and moments of pearly counterpoint. The passionate roulades and sudden meandering harmonic gestures well point to Schumann’s masterpiece in this form of expression, his C Major Fantasy.
The 1838 Kreisleriana reveals the literary side of Schumann’s complex nature, taking its inspiration from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1814 “Fantasiestuecke in Callots Manier,” the two volumes describing a Kappellmeister Kreisler, himself possessed of two inner demons, one philosophical, the other passionate. Schumann explodes onto the eight-movement scene in D Minor, with violin exercises in the manner of Paganini, the bass line ubiquitous in the suite. The extended, “inward” second movement pleads in B-flat Major in the form of a rondo with two trios. The piano writing’s occasional polyphonic bursts remind us of intricacies from Carnaval. The duality between G Minor and B-flat becomes pervasive, seeking a mediant harmony (E Major and C-sharp Minor) in the maze–the circle of fifths which Schumann loved–to instantiate Master Raro, Schumann’s synoptic expression of the resolution of his masculine and feminine selves.
The third movement in G Minor luxuriates in Romantic harmonies both Schumann and Chopin relished; and the piece is, after all, dedicated to Chopin. Grimaud invests both intimacy and mystery into her rendition. The fourth movement “Sehr langsam,” deliberately hovers between G Minor and B-flat Major, almost a moment of Debussy in its ambiguity. Romance to the point of madness or death makes itself felt in the latter part of the suite, even the flighty figures in hemiola rife with longing, the basis–according to Novalis–of all Romantic art. The sixth section appropriately invites Bach to the table, since Kreisler in Hoffmann’s fantasy performs the Goldberg Variations at a bourgeois tea party. The wild seventh movement surges in C Minor then G Minor, urging itself by Bach polyphony to a coda in E-flat Major. It breaks off into an almost diatonic mode, a child’s musing at the mental stresses of adulthood. The lithe finale impishly sounds G Minor, B-flat Major, D Minor, and the home key of G Minor. Whimsical and passionate, the two hands themselves form a complementary bond of fate, a higher wisdom in heaven and earth than apparent your philosophy, Horatio.
After an hour of Schumann’s Romantic throes and convulsions, the Liszt 1849 Dante Sonata might appear as emotional overkill, but for those willing to plummet to the depths and rise again, the one movement work from the second volume of Years of Pilgrimage–Italy finds an exemplary acolyte in Grimaud. The D Minor descent and writhing in eternal flames finds consolation in F-sharp Major, a series of beatitudes and meditations on the path to salvation. Grimaud’s graduated pulsations, her intricate arch that corresponds to the Liszt’s ardent impressionism and keyboard coloratura, becomes appropriately demonic and rapturous. Quite possibly, the entire Sonata really centers on Francesca da Rimini and her doomed lover Paolo, much in the ternary style of Tchaikovsky’s equally passionate hymn in his Op. 32 symphonic poem. Where else but in pictorially musical art can even damnation find exalted harmonious resolution?
— Gary Lemco