SCHUMANN: Piano Sonata in F-sharp Minor, Op. 11; Piano Sonata in F Minor, Op. 14; Piano Sonata in G Minor, Op. 22 – Carlo Grante, piano – Music & Arts CD-1220, 79:16 [Distrib. by Albany] ****:
Among contemporary piano virtuosos, Carlo Grante continues to attract acolytes through his often daring programming and the breadth of his repertory, which embraces diverse musical personalities like Chopin, Busoni, Schmidt, and Godowsky. A pupil of Sergiu Perticaroli, Ivan Davis, Rudolf Firkusny, and A. Kezedadze Pogorelich, Grante sports a pungent, bold, refined technique quite capable of surmounting any digital and intellectual hurdle. In this all-Schumann recital (9 September 2007), Grante takes on the three published sonatas, 1832-1836, hardly a rival to the Beethoven 32, even if Schumann’s opera often pay homage, directly or by allusion, to the great master.
The highly improvisational of Schumann’s Op. 11 (1835) draws from several sources, literary as well as musical, like Richter’s novel Years of Indiscretion and the composer’s own Intermezzi, Op. 4. Typically, all sorts of anagrams on the “Clara” appear throughout, as well as quotes from her own Scene fantastique. The subjective fixation on the metric short-short-long anapest might suggest Schubert as much as it does late Beethoven. Over an ostinato Schumann will throw out sudden leaps or a biting, single chord, then sparks of dialogue in competing registers. Grante keeps the music at the passionate gallop, the infrequent arpeggio or legato run appearing like cream over a choppy sea. The Aria takes its cue from Mendelssohn, a “song without words.” Its dreamy intimacy must submit, however, to some overly crisp piano tone from Grante’s Steinway. The Scherzo owes debts to Beethoven’s Op. 101 Sonata in A Major, though the rhythmic and tonal leaps invoke Schubert’s A Major, D. 959 Sonata as well. The recitatives, too, imply that selfsame Schubert; and the sudden, chordal syncopes must have fascinated Chopin’s sense of adventure. The brittle, variant nature of the Finale plays like one of Schumann’s character-suites, especially those that like carnival-jests and masquerades. If Grante cannot quite keep a sense of form and structure in bounds–it hints at Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasie in several respects–he gives the music a decided, contrapuntally dramatic and harmonically wicked persona.
The “Concerto Without Orchestra” as Schumann’s Op. 14 (1836) is known, used to appeal to Vladimir Horowitz. Grante plays the four-movement edition, with a first movement from the original edition. A fleeting, prismatic character invests this piece, whose arpeggiated writing often approaches the Chopin B Minor Sonata. But in Schumann’s case, no melodic kernel or rhythmic impulse is too small to bear a sudden, transitional development. Some playful, non-legato, scherzino episodes intermingle with trills and syncopated arias, a witches’ brew of romantic conceits: papillons, dare we say? The temper of the piece belongs to another F Minor powerhouse, Beethoven’s Op. 57. The Scherzo utilizes a “Clara” motif that repeats itself, highly punctuated and four-square, with a trio that plays like a step-wise music box. The martial theme da capo sounds a bit like the opening Nachtstucke, Op. 23. The Variations on a Theme of Clara Wieck take a rather lachrymose 24-measure tune and subject it to both formal recasting along conventional lines and intricate paraphrases. The staggered procession and the high registration of the four variations more than look to the Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13. Grante moves through Schumann’s harmonic labyrinth with digital and sentient security, his interior lights already fixed on the end of the tunnel. The last movement eddy, Prestissimo possibile, demands a degree of fleet madness from Grante, who must diminish the feeling of any fixed bar-lines. The Op. 20 Humoreske’s agogics pop up, as does the three-hand polyphony of J.S. Bach. The predominant affect is of fleet, fugitive visions tumbling upon one another, a music not far from the state-room episode aboard ship in A Night at the Opera.
The G Minor Sonata (1832) under Grante appears the most hectic of the three, as it wants to be a toccata from its first notes. A degree of softness enters the mix, but the energetic, pulsating figures drive forward, as speedily as Grante’s fingers can allow. Eusebius tries to soothe the savage beast, but the running bass figures intervene, their providing a transition to something fateful in that motoric, opening theme. The ternary Andantino carries us into a songful hausmusik, a kind of harmonically askew nocturne that several times threatens to evaporate from entropy. The fierce syncopes and harsh clashes of dark and light of the Scherzo remind us of the Humoreske, Op. 20. The Rondo: Presto is all busy fingers at first, but an emotional reprieve comes early in the form of another nocturne. A scherzando follows, fleet and mumbling, then back to feverish ritornello, now in counterpoint. The thick chromatic line might want to emulate a Bach fugue transcription, but the nocturne appears again, even more innocently. The ritornello now gains stretti, the demands for the last minute increasingly acrobatic, in anticipation of Saint-Saens and worthy of Liszt. The coda’s shimmering thirds could be a test-piece for any solid keyboard competition that Grante would win hands down.