SCHUMANN: Symphonische Etüden, Op. 13; Waldszenen, Op. 82; Arabeske, Op. 18 – Martin Helmchen, piano – PentaTone multichannel SACD PTC 5186 452 [Distr. by Naxos], 60:52 *****:
This is really a stimulating, thoughtfully-planned Schumann program, featuring one of the composer’s greatest pieces of absolute music for the piano, his last important collection of character pieces, and maybe the most flat-out gorgeous piece of music he ever wrote. This last work, the Arabeske of 1838, was penned, according to the composer, with the ladies in mind—he described it as weiblich (“feminine”)—and it provides a gentle, poetic conclusion to a program that has more than its share of heaven-storming, thanks to the powerful Symphonische Etüden (1837).
The work is one of the musical results of Schumann’s brief engagement to Ernestine von Fricken, a pupil of Schumann’s teacher and future father-in-law Friedrich Wieck. It would be sad to think of Schumann as ever being something of a gold-digger, but the truth of the matter is that Ernestine’s adoptive father, Baron Ignaz von Fricken, threw cold water on the young folks’ plans when he revealed the girl had been born out of wedlock and would come to Schumann, if he chose to marry her, without a pfennig to her borrowed name. But in earlier, happier times, Schumann decided to pay homage to the baron by creating a set of variations based on a rather striking funeral march–like theme penned by this amateur musician.
Schumann tinkered with the work after its initial publication, bringing out a revised version in 1852, and there must have been a number of further permutations and combinations because after Schumann’s death, Friedrich Wieck “published an edition compiling the various versions of the work.” One of these permutations came to light only in 1890, when Brahms published a version with five additional variations Schumann had dropped before the work’s initial appearance in 1837. (Confusing, no?)
Including the five additional variations that Schumann (wisely) removed from the piece before publication is a thoughtful gesture—but I’d rather hear them as an appendix rather than inserted at the points where they originally stood. Addendum Variations II and III really do tend to throw the train off the tracks, especially coming as they do right before the bracingly athletic Variation VI. At least that’s how I see things; other listeners may be more accepting. If you’re not, you can always program your CD player to skip the additional five variations. Certainly, I can lodge no complaints at all about Martin Helmchen’s performance, which is excellent. He invests Baron von Fricken’s theme with a wonderful misterioso quality, as well as tragic intensity. He then goes on to inject each variation with just the right element, whether it’s the aching plaintiveness of Variation II, the heart-racing virtuosity of Variations V and VI, or the Chopinesque delicacy of Addendum Variation V. Helmchen tops his performance off with a perfectly judged treatment of Schumann’s grand finale, with its kaleidoscopic assortment of episodes, including the thundering fortissimo chords of the last twenty or so measures.
At one time Waldszenen, from the composer’s busiest year (1849), was considered lesser Schumann, but its real value is appreciated today, as the seventy-some recorded versions currently available attest. I’ve heard a fraction of them, as you might suppose, but Martin Helmchen’s performance is as fine as any I’m aware of. The playing is first-rate, of course, but so is the interpretation. Helmchen brings just the right emotional shading to each piece, whether it’s the wispily delicate Einsame Blumen (“Solitary Flowers”), the studiedly elusive Vogel als Prophet (“The Prophet Bird”), or the haunted, haunting Verrufene Stelle (“Disreputable Place”—presumably a spot in the forest where something nasty has occurred—a murder, perhaps?). Great stuff.
PentaTone’s SACD recording is equally wonderful: immediate, truthful, immersive in the best surround-sound manner. This one will certainly be on my favorite recordings list for 2013.