Schumann revitalised

Tempestuous, impulsive, self-questioning and wrapped in a mantle forged from love, Robert Schumann’s piano suite Kreisleriana (inspired by the character of Johannes Kreisler from the works of E.T.A. Hoffmann) dazzles the mind now as much as it would have done when it was written almost 200 years ago. Robert’s beloved wife Clara was his principle muse. As he himself wrote, “I’m overflowing with music and beautiful melodies now – imagine, since my last letter I’ve finished another whole notebook of new pieces. I intend to call it Kreisleriana. You and one of your ideas play the main role in it, and I want to dedicate it to you – yes, to you and nobody else – and then you will smile so sweetly when you discover yourself in it.” On the one hand, given the passage of time that has elapsed between the mid-19th century and the early 21st, it’s difficult to imagine ourselves back to the heady, even unhinged brand of romanticism that underlies this most confessional of Schumann’s piano works, while on the other the countless library shelves crammed with psychoanalytical studies perhaps offer some insight into Schumann’s brand of manic depression. Here Schumann’s self-created “Florestan” and “Eusebius” characters indicate his own contrasting impulsive and dreamy sides. But how to interpret them? In the 20thcentury Vladimir Horowitz and Alfred Cortot sent us on unimaginably inspired interpretative flights (both left us more than one recording of the work). But now? One pianist, and only one in my view, captures the breathless excitement of the animated opening, the introvert song that dominates the second, the third’s alternation of lyricism and agitation, the blatant contrasts in mood and colour in the (slow) fourth piece and the (lively) fifth, the deeply elegiac sixth, the virtuoso seventh and the last, a sort of musical rocking horse with petals falling all about it. That piece in particular takes some skills of coordination if it’s to come fully alive. With many pianists it doesn’t but the pianist under review is like a throwback to a golden era where mastery of inner voices, dynamics, subtle colouration, musical line, mood and design – whether in Kreisleriana or its companion pieces on this 86 minute CD (Blumenstück, Romanze No. 2, Andantino de Clara Wieck, Clara’s Variations on a theme by Robert (Op. 20) or Brahms’s Three Intermezzi Op. 117) – suggest a very special pedigree. Were I to overlay these superb recordings (they were made last year at Potton Hall in Suffolk) with a sheet of shellac (ie, ‘78’) surface noise then bend them with such vintage distorting sonic impediments as ‘wow’ and ‘flutter’ I might ask you to hazard a guess as to who is playing. Aside from Horowitz and Cortot, you might go for Rachmaninoff, Gieseking, Kempff or Solomon. All perhaps find a presence of sorts in the musical soul of BENJAMIN GROSVENOR, a pianist who for my money has no equal among his living rivals (Decca 485 3945, c£12.75). You might not like everything he does (most great players court similar levels of controversy), but he has a genuine voice and his recordings make a strong impression. You can’t forget them, and this remarkable recital is no exception.

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