Schumann
Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op.26
Waldszenen, Op.82
Sonata No.3 in F minor, Op.14 (Concerto without Orchestra)
Aldo Ciccolini (piano)

Recorded in March 2002 in Paris
CD No: CASCAVELLE VEL 3056
Duration: 72 minutes
Reviewed: February 2005
The Italian-born French pianist Aldo Ciccolini turns 80 on 15 August 2005. From the mid-fifties through to the late seventies he made a large number of recordings for EMI France, which apart from French repertoire included, amongst others, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Grieg, Rossini, Scarlatti and Schubert. His name is now not so well known, having largely disappeared from the UK concert-scene and having had no recording contract for many years. However, in 2002, Ciccolini recorded Chopin’s Nocturnes complete for the Swiss Company Cascavelle and this CD dates from slightly earlier.
Ciccolini now whenever possible uses a Fazioli piano and given the richness of the instrument’s sound on this recording, I assume one was used here. I suppose when a recording appears from a, then, 76-year-old pianist there may be some trepidation about the state of his fingers! There are the occasional passages where Ciccolini’s fingering is a little weak and shaky but otherwise there are no problems and the classic “some allowance must be made for” phrase is not to be found below.
In the opening movement of Faschingsschwank, Ciccolini really does attack the music, the second theme is only slightly slower and he makes sure via minimal use of the sustaining pedal that every note is crisply articulated with very strong downbeats, the whole effect is unusually demonic. The three short middle movements are beautifully played, the ‘Romanze’ is slow but sustained by singing tone and subtle rubato, the ‘Scherzino’ dances impishly and the ‘Intermezzo’ has great sweep and again superb articulation. The ‘Finale’, a toccata, is, like the first movement, very strong and direct, but the pulse and phrasing have natural ebb and flow. My benchmark for this work is Michelangeli’s 1957 BBC Legends performance; Ciccolini is very different but equally convincing.
Waldszenen is a late series of nine exquisitely varied miniatures and, once more, Ciccolini doesn’t use too much pedal and points the rhythms. In ‘J├Ąger auf der Lauer’ his touch is heavier and more menacing than is usual and in the next two slower pieces the tempos are flowing yet he can still capture the sense of lonely soliloquising in ‘Verrufene Stelle’. ‘Freundliche Landschaft’ is certainly Schnell, as marked, and there are some perfectly judged ritardandos. His tempo for the final ‘Abschied’ is slow but there is a plangent singing quality, which is very affecting. All of the pieces have a sense of rapture, fantasy and melancholy in Ciccolini’s hands and his phrasing is articulate and persuasive. So a marvellous performance, which I would place alongside Richter and Kempff (both DG), although their approach could be said to be more traditional in terms of poetic phrasing and weight of attack.
The big four-movement ‘Grand Sonata’ (the title “Concerto without Orchestra” being a publisher’s marketing device) was composed between 1835 and 1836 and bracketed by Carnaval and the Fantasy in C, it is rarely performed complete, but the third movement Variations do appear as a stand-alone piece. Horowitz programmed the complete work in his 1975/6 US concert tour and RCA – now BMG – issued a very fine LP put together from these performances and I shall use this for comparison. The first movement opens with a five-note Clara theme (it is from an Andantino by Clara Wieck) stated in octaves, and what follows needs persuasive advocacy to avoid charges of note-spinning, repetition and rigidity of form. Horowitz is faster than Ciccolini and creates an entirely Schumannesque sense of fantasy with some superb changes of dynamic and tone. By comparison Ciccolini sounds less fluid but he does play the final chords piano as marked rather than Horowitz’s ff.
In the scherzo it is Ciccolini who conveys a greater sense of animation; by contrast Horowitz is too Impressionistic and indulging in some rather mannered changes of dynamic and rhythm. Ciccolini adopts a more classical approach and thereby gives the music more focus and line. The slow movement is a set of four variations on Clara’s theme and Ciccolini plays its elegiac opening with plaintive tone and subtle rubato and each of the variations is strongly characterised, but the sense of passionate singing is never lost. Horowitz is much slower and dreamier and uses more pedal to create a softer outline; both approaches are totally compelling.
The last movement’s galloping first theme is marked ‘Prestissimo possible’ and Ciccolini really is driven here, only slowing marginally for the second theme, and he draws very clear parallels with the Op.7 Toccata. His coda is a tour de force and, if anything, even more demonic that the first movement of Faschingsschwank. By comparison Horowitz sounds too soft in the first theme and over-indulgent in the second. So, in the Sonata, the palm goes to Ciccolini, but, as I have indicated, this CD is full of distinguished and often great Schumann playing and demands a place on the shelves.
I have a number of Ciccolini’s LPs and his characteristically crisp and refined sound is well captured on this CD. However the balance is too forward which lessens the dynamic range at piano and below and the piano sounds as though it is in a vacuum with no identifiable acoustic space around it. The instrument clearly has weight, superb tone and definition – but as ever on CD there is no true resonance and projection. I do have a small quibble about the booklet; it is informative but the Waldszenen titles are only in French and with no tempo/mood markings.

 

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