Recorded live at Tonhalle Zurich, May 30, 1999
An entrancing live performance by Andras Schiff, playing compositions of Robert Schumann, recorded at the Tonhalle, Zurich, in 1999. The key to Schiff's engagement with Schumann - as Martin Meyer observes in the booklet notes - lies first and foremost in an astonishing empathy with the composer and the music. This is a point that the New York Times has also taken up: "Mr Schiff has an uncanny way of making a composer his own. Or is it making himself one with the composer'"
"One must leave every note just as Schumann wrote it, " Andras Schiff told German arts magazine Ibykus. "One must experiment properly and find a balance, an equilibrium." He added, "I know of no work by Schumann that is not wonderful - so inspiring. With all due respect to Brahms, for me Schumann is the more ingenious composer. With Schumann there is this burning inventiveness, this simply unbelievable inspiration..."
Schiff imparts the nature of that inspiration by ceding to the expressiveness of the music itself, and by imposing nothing, harnessing instead his immense technique and artistry to reveal the poetry and profundity of the work, as well as Schumann's "polyphonic" thinking, and the "conversational" attributes characteristic of much of the writing. A recital programme Schiff had been developing over several seasons, on the way toward this very special Zurich concert, was entitled "Schumann, the Poet", and while the pianist faithfully conveys the musical intimacy and lyricism particular to Schumann, he does not shrink from the composer's more turbulent emotions:
"Schiff's public performances of Bach's Preludes and Fugues, Partitas and Suites had already revealed more than beautifully moulded detail and a keen polyphonic sense," notes Martin Meyer. "Where necessary, Schiff was perfectly capable of passion and urgency; of powerful, vigorous, unfaltering action; of resolutely placing dynamic and rhythmic climaxes. In his exploration of Schumann, this gift has attained even broader proportions. The composer of richly metaphorical associations, alchemist of the most intimate conversation, was also a man of enormous, consuming passion."
Feelings may be at their most complex in the Sonata in F Minor, written largely in the summer of 1836, when the 26-year-old Schumann was separated from Clara Wieck: "More comprehensively and generously here than elsewhere, Schumann is intent on capturing wide-ranging passions, invocations of love and its fears, and by the same token, conflicts - which are thoroughly amenable to musical representation." Vladimir Horowitz once described the Sonata in F Minor as one of the towering masterpieces of Romantic music, and declared himself "flabbergasted" by its relative neglect; it asks a lot of a performer. Originally conceived as a "Concerto without Orchestra", the first version of the work, published in 1836, presents the sonata without the Scherzo, which was added for the 1853 edition. Andras Schiff decided upon a combination of the two, playing the 1853 version with the first movement from the earlier edition.
"Humoreske" and the eight "Noveletten", compositions heard more frequently from interpreters of Schumann, date from 1838, and are also given deeply-felt performances by Schiff. At all times the pianist seems to express the essence of the composer's intentions, through all his fluctuating moods. "Variations, but not on a theme" was Schumann's summary of the capricious nature of the "Humoreske"; it is a study in contrasts of temperament.
Some words of Roland Barthes' may be apposite here: "Schumann's piano music, which is difficult, does not give rise to the image of virtuosity; we can play it neither according to the old delirium nor according to the new style (which I should readily compare to the "nouvelle cuisine" - undercooked.) This piano music is intimate (which does not mean gentle), or again, private, even individual, refractory to 'professional' approach, since to play Schumann implies a technical innocence very few artists can attain." This is surely the question of balance and equilibrium that Andras Schiff alludes to, when he says that Schumann's notes must be "left alone", that his music must speak for itself.
But, Meyer reminds us, "even an interpreter with an infallible memory and masterful shaping powers needs that moment of grace: the euphoria - half-familiar, half longed-for - that envelops the circumscribed universe of the concert hall. And [in Zurich] the magic materialised, gripping both the artist and his audience."