Davidsbundlertanze, Op.6 (First edition)
Concert sans orchestre, Op.14 (First version of Piano Sonata No.3 in F minor)
Maurizio Pollini (piano)
CD No: DG 471 369-2 Duration: Reviewed: January 2002
Pollini – Schumann
Reviewed by Ying Chang
If asked to name one composer to represent Romanticism, I would choose Schumann. In his music, as in all Romanticism, are absence and longing, nature and sentiment, love and death; above all, there is vulnerability and weakness, which reveal how human Romanticism aimed to be as a philosophy. Schumann’s flaws – infelicities of composition, the feeble will of his heroes as depicted in song, even his own mental illness – play an integral part within what he tells us about those two great pillars of Romantic thought: heroism and desire.
At first glance, then, Schumann is not Maurizio Pollini’s natural muse. Pollini has, over four decades, had no rival as an exponent of perfect technique, absolute precision and lucid intelligence of interpretation. Thus his musical persona stands for strength, not vulnerability, intellectual order, not emotional indecision, flawlessness, not defects. Pollini is accused of aloofness, never of histrionics. He’s in the habit of recording composers over long intervals. With Schumann it’s roughly one CD per decade; his 60th-birthday present to us is of two less celebrated works.
It turns out to be a wonderful success. In my review of his recent South Bank recital, I alluded to a relatively recent period of Pollini’s recital-career when he seemed to have given up conveying emotion altogether. This CD, however, is more in the vein of his Brahms concerto recordings with Abbado from 1997-8 [DG 457 837-2, 2 CDs] in showing a new emotional commitment and humanity. This is a Pollini able to relax his trademark harshness and give due weight to the yielding, melting nature of Schumann’s melodies – a Pollini showing the wisdom of age perhaps. Pollini’s earlier Schumann recordings, though very fine, played down the disorder and diffidence in the composer’s soul. Listen, say, to how brusque and declamatory Arabeske’s first episode is, and, conversely, how well suited Pollini is to the discipline of Etudes symphoniques (both recorded in 1984); how easily he by-passes musical problems with technical athleticism. This disc reveals a new dimension to his Schumann – he has become more aware of the mortality embedded in the composer’s invention.
The Davidsbundler dances are divided between Schumann’s two alter egos, the extrovert Florestan and the reflective Eusebius, which prove an exemplary vehicle for Pollini’s emotional range. Traditional Pollini virtues come out well in the Florestan movements – the precise attack for No.3’s rising double thirds or No.6’s staccato left hand. No.10 is the best example of all. It is Brahms before his time – Pollini’s habitual exactness makes him an ideal purveyor of the movement’s declamation and cross-rhythms. Eusebius alone is the revelation – the melodic line of No.5 is laid out like so many precious gems; pace and rubato are expertly calculated in No.14. There are reminders of Pollini’s profound continuity of approach – No.7 displays his magisterial contempt for too much detail. While there is some attempt to match the ’Mit Humor’ direction of No.12, Pollini’s wit remains subordinated to his compelling drive to impose order. In No.15, the Eusebian arpeggios reminiscent of ’Der Nussbaum’ give way to hectoring delivery. When Florestan and Eusebius appear together, the balance is miraculous – the opening movement and No.13.
There is always the question of “Which edition?” with Schumann. Generally, Schumann’s revisions tend to smooth out initial strangeness, and therefore, to some extent, the music’s originality. Charles Rosen has written authoritatively (as so often) on this subject. In this release’s booklet-note, the editorial issue is tackled head-on; Pollini has followed modern fashion by preferring first versions. In the case of Davidsbundlertanze, the consequence is relatively minor – though one should note that this edition has “F” and “E” marked after the movements to represent Florestan and Eusebius.
With the sonata, however, irrespective of textual changes, Schumann’s first printing omits the two scherzos later published by himself and Brahms. Two of the central movement’s variations are also deleted. This has the effect, as Pollini himself discusses in the notes, of giving the piece emotional as well as thematic unity. Though written early in the composer’s career, Concert sans orchestre is already an elegiac cry (at one point in the first movement Pollini appears literally to cry out), which presages Schumann’s anguish and mental confusion in later life.
The sonata is concentrated and organic – too long to be a set of fragments, too short to ramble. Whether in the lightness of first movement’s second subject, the application of the middle variations, or the light-fingered virtuosity of the finale, Pollini has penetrated deeply to the heart of this music. The coupling of the two works is apt too; in this shorter version, the sonata’s affinity with two contrasting personas becomes clearer.
Pollini’s celebrity allows DG to produce a CD that plays for fifty minutes (and with a reassuringly traditional sleeve design). But there are no complaints about short value. The sound is exemplary – sonorous, natural and with excellent presence. You will, I suggest, never tire of hearing Pollini reconciling high romance, Romantic sensibility, and modern accuracy. “Renaissance Man” is a condition one is supposed to reach at sixty, not twenty.This disc is proof, if any were still needed, that Pollini (he is, after all, Italian too) has attained it.