“Pianist András Schiff has made a specialty of the music of Schumann for years, and his readings continue to get richer and more incisive. What's remarkable about Schiff's playing is his mastery of touch and texture, the way he carves out sculptures in sound that are at once delicate and sharply defined. Just as in his performances of Bach on the modern piano, Schiff gives Schumann's music a crystalline textural clarity that still allows for a range of highly expressive moods and tonal colours.”
Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle
A decade after his highly acclaimed “In Concert” album, András Schiff resumes his documentation of Robert Schumann’s music in a double-album recorded at Neumarkt’s Reitstadl. Schiff, one of the great pianists of our era, traces the development of Schumann’s piano music, from the youthful “Papillons”, to the C Major Fantasy op. 17 (in which the composer sought new routes for the sonata after Beethoven), and onwards to the final (and seldom-performed) “Geistervariationen”, the “ghost variations”. By this time, Schumann’s genius was in thrall to escalating illness, and he believed the variations to the original theme were dictated to him by angels. (Clara Schumann noted in her diary: “In the night Robert got up and wrote down a theme, which as he said the angels had sung to him; after he had finished it he lay down and had visions all night.”). Work on the Thema mit Variationen was disrupted by a suicide attempt on February 27, 1854; the following day, however, Schumann finished it, his last completed piano work.
In his revelatory re-investigation of this enormously influential Romantic music, the Fantasy in C Major is heard with alternate endings: as well as the official published version, András Schiff includes a preliminary version he finds more musically convincing. Schiff gives his thoughts on the matter in a most interesting note in the CD booklet. In 1975 the pianist tracked down a copy of the manuscript, with corrections in Schumann’s hand, at the Széchényi Library in Budapest:
“The musical text of this copy contains one great surprise, which appears on the last page. Up to that point we find only small details (…) But this ending! Following a big accelerando, Schumann comes to rest on a diminished-seventh chord – A-C-E flat-F# – and after a pause (fermata) that goes on forever he brings back the theme from the end of the first movement. This is a quasi-quotation of the famous motif from Beethoven’s song-cycle An die ferne Geliebte (“Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder”). A homage to Beethoven, or a message of love to Clara? It is accompanied with new harmony, which didn’t appear at the parallel passage in the first movement. With this ending, Schumann succeeded in bringing the work full-circle: the beginning and end meet, as they do in Bach’s Goldberg Variations, or in Beethoven’s E-major Sonata op.109. Here we have a big problem. Schumann crossed out these bars in his own hand, and replaced them with a different ending. (…) It is beautiful, noble, simple. But, if I may quietly say so, it sounds much less exalted, less inspired than the “Budapest” version. Schumann was extremely self-critical, and he constantly corrected his works. (…) Performers are often faced with a real problem of choice in order to reach a solution. In this particular case we may be allowed to offer the Judgement of Solomon. At the end of the Fantasy you will hear the Budapest version. As an appendix I have recorded the third movement again, with the definitive ending.”
Amongst the other highlights in the programme here are the thirteen Kinderszenen, the pieces which helped establish Schumann’s reputation as a composer of unique insights. In the liner notes Wolf-Dieter Seiffert writes that with this “first significant work in the history of music to put the child at centre stage, the composer set off a genuine spring tide of romanticised children’s music. The pieces only seem to be easy to play: they demand strongly differentiated nuances of attack.” The spirit of high romanticism is extended in the Waldszenen (Forest scenes) op. 82, which “draw us into the highly intense emotions of the traveller in the woods, for in addition to their sounds of idyll and longing, the secret darkness of the forest and of the soul makes its effect in every piece.”
András Schiff, born in Budapest in 1953, puts a strong focus on cyclic performances of the important piano works by the masters from Bach to Bártok. His wide-ranging discography on ECM includes works by Janáček, Schubert, Bach, Schumann, Mozart and many others. Schiff's most ambitious project to date, the complete Beethoven sonata cycle performed in 20 major musical centres worldwide and recorded for ECM in concert at the Tonhalle Zürich was completed in April 2009 with two triumphant recitals in New York's Carnegie Hall. In 1999 Schiff created his own chamber orchestra, the Cappella Andrea Barca, which consists of international soloists, chamber musicians and friends. In addition to working annually with this Orchestra, he conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra London and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. András Schiff will be including Schumann’s music in his solo recitals in the coming season, including the “Geistervariationen”.