Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Piano Music of Robert Schumann: Papillons, Davidsbundlertanze and Carnaval

If you're going to spend time learning Schumann's music, be sure to spend some time learning about Schumann the man. I found that having some sense of how this composer fought valiantly against personal demons and mental illness throughout his life was extremely helpful in helping me grasp his music. Try starting with his Wikipedia page for an overview of his life and key works.

Today we will cover four works by Schumann: Papillons (opus 2), Davidsbundlertanze (opus 6) and Carnaval (opus 9), which are on disc 1 of a four-CD recording of Schumann's piano works performed by Wilhelm Kempff.
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Performed by Wilhelm Kempff (1895-1991)
Schumann: Piano Works
Deutsche Grammophone, 1975

First, if you do the math on the various dates above, it's worth noting that pianist Wilhelm Kempff performs these works, which were recorded over the years 1967-1975, at ages ranging from 72 to 80! Presumably Kempff was well past his prime as a musician at this point, and indeed these recordings do feature more minor technical errors than you'd typically expect in a classical music recording. However, Kempff plays this music with deep expressiveness, and I'll always choose a slightly imprecise performance played with profound feeling over an emotionally flat, yet technically perfect, performance.

Ironically, Kempff, who died at age 95, lived more than twice as long as Schumann, who died at the relatively young age of 46.

Before we get into our listener notes, let me share a moving quote from the liner notes of this delightful CD on our pianist, Mr. Kempff:

Kempff's long artistic life was permeated by this joy in music-making, by "the joy of spontaneous creation" as he called it. He radiated this joy, and transmitted it to his listeners throughout the world... He even regarded the medium of recording first and foremost as a means of spreading joy to those people he could not reach in person. Then one day, as he was playing for a small circle of friends, the 85-year-old pianist stopped suddenly in the middle of his performance, closed the piano and spoke quietly in an almost sorrowful voice: "I am so tired. Throughout my entire life I have sought to bring joy and love to people through my music. Now I can do it no longer."
--Ursula von Rauchhaupt

At that, he retired, and his wife disclosed that year that Kempff had Parkinson's disease. He died 11 years later.

For my part, having never really listened at length to any of Schumann's works prior to tackling this blog post, it is a profound pleasure to experience how Schumann composed--and how Kempff performs--these brilliant scenes and vignettes. It's given me a refreshing new way to think about piano music, and it reminds me yet again what a genuine pleasure it has been to start this blog.

Notes for Papillons (opus 2, track 1, disc 1):
1) Kempff plays this multifaceted, 12-movement piece with no breaks between movements. It sounds like twelve Chopin preludes played end to end.

2) If you want to hear the very first flubbed note, it's at 0:40 in the first track of Papillons (disc 1, track 1). Again, I wish I didn't have this habit of noticing this stuff.

After Papillons, the rest of this disc consists of 39 brief tracks ranging from tidbits of less than a minute long to appetizers of 3-4 minutes in length. Can you think of better music to load on to your iPod for an introduction to some of the best piano music in existence?

Notes for Davidsbundlertanze (opus 6, tracks 2-19, disc 1):
1) Many of these works sound like they could be played by intermediate-level piano players, at least from a technical standpoint. Quite a far cry from Beethoven's solo piano works, which are so crushingly difficult that only experts can play them. Obviously, however, there is much more to it than just hitting all the notes. Which helps explain why Kempff "devoted decades to the piano music of Robert Schumann."

2) Note the use of contrast in this collection of short works: there is suspense and keen urgency (and massive use of pedals) in #4 (track 5, disc 1) versus the driving, repetitive rush of #6 (track 7). Another example: consider the contrast between the suspense and urgency of works like #4, #6, #10 and #13 and the pensive melodiousness of works like #11, #14 and #18.

3) A particular favorite of mine is #17 (track 18)--in just four and a half minutes, you feel like you've listened to an entire symphony.

Notes for Carnaval (opus 9, tracks 20-40, disc 1):
1) I just about jumped out of my seat at the very beginning of the first movement, "Preambule." Again, there is such complexity and so many voices in this composition that it's hard to believe this is just a solitary piano.

2) Another particular favorite: #5, "Eusebius" (track 24, disc 1), in which Schumann depicts the calm and quiet side of his personality.

3) Do you recognize anything familiar about #6, "Florestan"? Uh-huh. Schumann reprises the introductory theme from Papillons here. Note also that Florestan depicts the fiery and impulsive side of Schumann's personality.

4) If you heard #12 "Chopin" in a vacuum, would you be able to tell that it isn't Chopin, but rather Schumann imitating Chopin? Me neither.

5) In #14 "Reconnaissance" (track 33, disc 1) notice how the melody consists of double notes during the main theme, and again at the 1:29 mark in this movement.

6) Have you ever heard a one-minute waltz? After listening to #16 "Valse Allemande" (track 35, disc 1), you can say you did!

7) In the final movement, #20, you should be able to recognize a variety of themes from throughout the work reprised here in the finale. Test your ear and listen to this final movement a couple of times by itself to get familiar with it, and then listen to the entire Carnaval straight through. When you get to the final movement this time, what themes can you detect that you've heard earlier in the work?

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