“Schumann’s Enigma” = SCHUMANN: Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 1 in a, Op. 105; Sonata for Violin and Piano in d, Op. 121 ‒ Svetlana Tsivinskaya, v. / Natalia Tokar, p, ‒ Blue Griffin BGR 391, 48:10 [Distr. by Albany] **1/2:
Sadly, the chief enigma here is why anyone would choose to invest in this recording.
The enigma of the album title refers to Robert Schumann’s lifelong fascination with puzzles and ciphers, which crops up, for example, as the cryptic little “Sphinxes” section in Carnaval and the musical cryptograms that appear throughout the composer’s work. The most interesting aspect of the current release is the very informative notes; they describe in detail Schumann’s cryptographic encoding in the Grand Sonata in D Minor, Op. 121. Noting the musical equivalents in Italian and English notation of D minor (Re minor), E minor (Mi minor), B minor (Si minor), and G major (Sol major), the note-writers (apparently Yelena Franklin and Stefan Koch) explain that with these four musical notes Schumann had the necessary musical “characters” to spell out, in shorthand at least, his own name in his compositions.
Thus the first movement of the sonata is dominated by Re minor (Robert) “with light touches of Sol minor and Mi minor [Schumann].” The central movements feature an interplay between Schumann’s alter egos, the passionate Florestan and dreamy Eusebius, represented by Si minor in the scherzo, Sol major plus Mi minor in the slow movement. The program notes go on (maybe a bit too far) to suggest that there is a coded message in this movement for Schumann’s beloved wife Clara: Mi minor stands not merely for the Mann in Schumann but for man and, more significantly, husband. “Manhood rather than giving homage to his alter egos, he does so to his love, Clara, a woman as strong, if not stronger than Mann—in love, life, and in music.” The sentence may be somewhat garbled, but the sentiment fits with what we know about Schumann’s musical love letters to his wife.
Would that the performances on this disc were the equal of the interesting ideas encapsulated in the program notes. Unfortunately, that is not the case, the reading of the A Minor Sonata being an especial letdown. Schumann marked the first movement Mit leidenschalflichen Ausdruck (“With passionate expression”), but the tempo is much too sluggish to project any kind of passion, and Svetlana Tsivinskaya’s rather guttural playing at the beginning of the exposition leaves an impression of drudgery rather than passion. Of course Schumann is partly to blame because the parlando style he cultivated in his instrumental music means that he overemphasizes the middle and lower-middle range of the violin and piano both. Still, players can bring much more heat and light to this seething first movement: compare, for example, Isabelle Faust and Silke Avenhaus on CPO—maybe my favorite performance—or Gidon Kremer and Martha Argerich on DGG.
The tiny slow movement is charming but leaves the impression of a throwaway, one of the facts that undoubtedly made Schumann regret this first sonata effort and set out almost immediately to improve on it with the much grander D Minor Sonata. In the current performance, the movement sounds just as run-of-the-mill as Schumann must have assessed it. Matters do improve in the rondo finale. Again, this is not really Schumann at his most commanding, though the gorgeous central episode, with piano tremulously recalling the first tune of the opening movement, is prime Schumann. Tsivinskaya and Tokar make a respectable showing in the stretch, but by then, alas, the race is lost.
I give the ladies two-and-one-half stars to acknowledge that their reading of the D Minor Sonata is more competitive. They seem to have found their collective voice and project Schumann’s bold gestures with understanding and commitment. True, this is a much stronger work, featuring one of Schumann’s greatest sets of variations (Movement 3) and outer movements that have far more compositional integrity than Schumann often achieves in sonata form. The first movement especially is tightly argued through his development of brief but pregnant motives.
Yet even if the performance of this sonata is a more than acceptable one, the recording offers very short timing (just 48 minutes), plus sound that, for my taste at least, is too close for comfort, which does the violin no favors. With over fifty recordings of each of these works in the catalog, I’m afraid the current disc is just not in the running.