Piano Sonata in F-sharp minor, Op. 11
Kinderszenen, Op. 15
Fantasie in C, Op. 17
Waldszenen, Op. 82
Theme and Variations (Geistervariationen)
András Schiff (piano).
ECM New Series 476 3909 (2 CDs)
Poetry and refinement inform this two-disc Schumann recital by András Schiff. The opening work is Papillons, which reveals the piano sound as rather bright in the treble and the bass being rather lightweight. Later, the ear adjusts and finds greater equanimity between the two. Schiff convincingly captures well Papillons‘ mood-swings, drawing us into an intimate and personal world.
The larger, more robust and demonstrative F-sharp minor Piano Sonata is lucidly distilled. Schiff’s clarity is refreshing in itself, tightening what can seem to be a ramshackle structure in the first movement. The ‘Aria’ that is the second movement is touchingly shaped and proves the epitome of Schumann’s soul. A frolicsome Scherzo follows, and – to match the scope of the first movement – the large-scale finale is once again brought to clear life by Schiff. This is a work that can be difficult to get to know, but Schiff unravels its densest pages to good effect.
The first disc ends with Kinderszenen, for the most part nostalgic and gentle music, which Schiff probes simply but effectively. Attention always centres on ‘Träumerei’, and Schiff plays this with affection and without affectation to uncomplicated advantage.
The second CD opens with the great C-major Fantasy, to which Schiff brings passion, flexibility and tenderness. The challenging central movement is given with poise and – to use the word again – clarity. Schiff’s success is in maintaining momentum in music that can seem awkward for even the greatest virtuosos. In the last movement, the surprise is that Schiff has recorded a version of the coda that was found in Budapest in the 1970s. (In his booklet note, Schiff wonders if Liszt, the work’s dedicatee, brought the manuscript to Hungary.)
In this version, Schumann refers back to the first movement to bring the Fantasy full-circle. He crossed out these “Budapest” bars (as replicated in the booklet) and they are not published. Schiff’s sensitively modulated account of this finale – with a few minor alterations to the printed text – is beautifully touched and sounded, the music’s allusion to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata enwrapped rather than attention-drawing. (Schiff includes here the Fantasy’s last movement as it is published.)
In between, comes Waldszenen and the so-called Geistervariationen. The nine miniatures of the former are varied and attractive, the composer for the most part in poetic and directly communicative mood, adding some bucolic contrasts that include the flavor of the hunt. The best known number, ‘Vogel als Prophet,’ is quixotic and dominated by strange calls. Once again, Schiff’s sense of line and Bachian lucidity pays many dividends.
The Ghost Variations also give this album its title. This is music from 1854, just two years before Schumann’s death when he believed that spirits were dictating music to him. Essentially this a set of variations on an original theme, a short continuous essay of 10 minutes’ duration, slight but personal, and made affecting through Schiff finding much richness of expression.