Schiff’s Schumann program explores a Romantic poet’s eclecticism

Tue Oct 26, 2010 at 9:12 am

By Dennis Polkow

Pianist Andras Schiff performed an all-Schumann recital Sunday at Symphony Center.

It is seldom that the opportunity exists to hear an entire program of Schumann piano music, but then, the Schumann bicentennial doesn’t come around every century.

Unlike Chopin, whose bicentennial is also this year and has remained a constant favorite of pianists and audiences alike, the eclectic genius of Robert Schumann has always proved more elusive.

András Schiff, who in the past has presented marathon one-composer recitals of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven is making a powerful statement about how he views the significance of Schumann by presenting a piano recital devoted entirely to the German composer Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center.

Waldszenen (“Forest scenes”) from 1848-9 is often viewed as the beginning of Schumann’s compositional decline, given its almost naïve technical simplicity compared to the big piano works of the 1830s.  The nine-movement work is often played primarily to evoke color and mood, but Schiff seemed determined to demonstrate that Waldszenen represents a mature distilling of the essentials of Schumann’s art to a miniature format.

Waldszenen was revealed not as mere program music, as it is so often performed, but as an abstract study in concise Romanticism.  Pedaling sparingly and allowing Schumann’s carefully woven textures to dominate rather than attempting to evoke the picturesque descriptive titles, Schiff revealed an almost Webern-like transparency within these pieces.

Instead of using the pianistic effects in Vogel als Prophet (“The Prophet Bird”) to aurally suggest a bird, for instance, Schiff chose instead to focus on Schumann’s broken phrases and cross-relationships that create this effect.  In so doing, a clear trajectory emerges from Schumann to Olivier Messiaen’s incorporation of bird sounds into his piano music a century later.

Robert Schumann

The Davidsbündlertanze (“League of David dances”), is a reference to the music society co-created by Schumann to defend the cause of 19th century contemporary music against its “Philistine” detractors that were only interested in empty virtuosity for its own sake.

Not so much true dances as an abstract musical dialogue between esthetic qualities symbolized by Florestan, the extroverted, impetuous masculine, and Eusebius, the introspective, lyrical feminine, Schiff’s traversal of the eighteen-movement suite was the highlight of the afternoon.

Here, Schiff took Schumann at his word; if the composer called for Etwas hahnbüchen (“somewhat impetuously”), then Schiff became even more playful, more spontaneous.  Particularly remarkable was the way that the Florestan and Eusebius sections juxtaposed so flawlessly to form a perfect whole.

Kinderszenen (“Scenes from childhood”), Op. 15, opened the second half of the program, though after Schiff’s abstract Waldszenen, no one was expecting Schiff to offer a conventionally programmatic rendering of Schumann’s best-loved piano music.

There was no lost innocence of childhood that so many hear in this music, rather Schiff’s lucidity suggested that Schumann is either evoking some of the Lord of the Flies-like indifference and brutality that also is childhood, or that this is childhood looked at soberly from a depressed adulthood of dashed hopes.

Even the famous Träumerei (“Dreaming”) was presented in a non-ethereal manner where its linear structure was emphasized, suggesting that the dream, though quiet, is ambiguous and anxious.

Schiff closed with the 1852 second edition of the Symphonic Etudes, a ten-movement theme and variations revision of the original 1837 twelve-movement version.

With two movements removed (Nos. 3 and 9), the structure of the work is revealed in sharper relief, showing the set to be a true theme and variations successor to the likes of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations.

As with those works, it isn’t so much the quality of the theme that matters, which in all of these cases are remarkably mediocre, to be sure, but rather, how innovation and imagination can transform so little into so much.  Schiff, for his part, made sure that the theme itself remained clearly in view throughout its camouflaged permutations.

After a thunderously appreciative ovation, Schiff settled in for a single encore, the third movement of the C Major Fantasy given a nuanced and poignant reading that was the perfect coda for an extraordinary afternoon.

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