Tuesday, August 31, 2010

In review--Schumann's Year (200th Anniversary of Schumann's birth)

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Staier and Sepec
Robert Schumann Sonatas for Piano and Violin
Harmonia Mundi

From around the time of German composer Robert Schumann’s death in 1856 (and in his last years), to the 1960s, Schumann’s later works were considered inferior to his other works. After listening to Andreas Staier’s (forte piano) and Daniel Sepec’s (1780 violin) recording of Schumann’s later sonatas, I wonder about the brilliance of Schumann’s work prior to the 1850s. The music that flows off of Robert Schumann Sonatas for Piano and Violin sounds brilliant with marvelous sonorities coming from both instruments. Passages explode off of the disc—impassioned, blazing, while alternating with lyrical poetry. Schumann’s homage to JS Bach feels both endearing and clearheaded. So any nonsense about Schumann’s plight with depression and madness curbing his virtuosity rightfully should be discounted and ignored.

On this recording, Staier dusts off an Erard forte piano (1837, Paris, restored by Edwin Beunk and Johan Wennink), and Sepec plays a vintage violin with deep and rich tones. In fact, I think both the talent of these musicians and the timbre of their respective instruments breathe new life into Schumann’s sonatas while alternately taking listeners on a journey to the 1850s. I wouldn’t call this musical channeling, but certainly the spirit of Schumann embodies the recording and how. This leaves me wondering if the two musicians felt an intimacy with the Romantic era composer or if they felt themselves slipping into the emotions embodied by the composer. How could it not?

The duo opens with Bach’s gorgeous Chaconne for violin and clavichord. Schumann interpreted Bach’s work for a new audience (Romantic era), which is hard to imagine that by the mid-1800s, JS Bach was already falling out of favor, but not with Schumann who devoted every day to the baroque composer in some way. Schumann’s first Sonata for piano and violin (op. 105) follows that stunning Bach interpretation. Though a comment by Schumann dismissing this piano and violin sonata appears in the liner notes, it seems almost imaginable that he didn’t feel some amorous feelings for this gorgeous sonata, with its light lyrical passages played on the violin and shadowed by the piano. Certainly it’s romantic.

Schumann preferred the second Sonata (op. 121) which blazes and explodes out of the instruments. This powerhouse sonata would not have been lost on the likes of Beethoven who could also turn angry bursts into poetry. This second sonata feels much darker than the first, and probably perfect to listen to on a stormy day like today. However, I much prefer the first sonata even if this causes Schumann to stir in his grave. Finally, Gesänge der Frühe for piano and violin is a collection of miniatures based on the theme of morning light. The longest suite out of the five runs just over 3 minutes. And it possesses a lightness of being that feels like a respite before heading off to the second sonata that ends the recording with a bang or a flight into madness.


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