Thursday, August 21, 2008

Schumann: Symphonic Etudes, Kinderszenene (Scenes From Childhood) and Kreisleriana (Fantasies)

Today we're going to cover disc 2 from this amazing four CD set of Schumann's piano works, performed by pianist Wilhelm Kempff.

After listening to these recordings, I've never been more inspired to want to learn to play the piano. It's amazing what this man can do when he composes for this instrument. One work is a spare, beautiful and unforgettable melody, and the next work resonates with the depth and complexity of an entire symphony.
Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Performed by Wilhelm Kempff (1895-1991)
Schumann: Piano Works
Deutsche Grammophone, 1975

And yet this man lived such a short life with so much suffering. If there's anything that even a cursory survey of the history of classical music shows, it's that so many of the world's greatest composers ranged from insane to insecure to shockingly miserable. More evidence of how true geniuses are doomed to suffer in this world.

Let's get right into the listener notes:

Notes for Etudes (opus 13, tracks 1-13, disc 2):

1) What exactly is an etude, anyway? Since I grew up playing etudes on my trumpet, let me share my own definition: It's a brief musical composition designed specifically to torture beginning and intermediate musicians. Etudes are almost always musically boring to play; many of them just suck. And they typically contain technically difficult passages designed to make the musician acutely aware of his shortcomings. All etudes are written by sadistic and downright mean composers who like to drive musicians to tantrums, fits of swearing and otherwise utter misery.

At least that's what I thought an etude was until I heard these beautiful works by Schumann. If I had had etudes like these to play on my trumpet when I was a kid, I would have been unstoppable. You'd have to lock the basement door to keep me from running down there to practice.

2) This work is structured in the form of a simple theme (track 1, disc 2) followed by twelve variations. See if you can recognize and pick out the main theme undulating under each of the following etudes. I found it fairly easy until Etude #7 (track 8, disc 2)--where exactly is the theme in that work?

3) My top favorite of all of the Etudes is the impressionistic, Debussy-like Etude #11 (track 12, disc 2).

4) Listen at the 6:16 mark in Etude 12 (track 13, disc 2), where there's a surprise jump into a new major chord. That beautiful unpredictability is one of Schumann's trademark gifts and one of the key reasons his works are such a pleasure to listen to.

Notes for Kinderszenen (opus 15, tracks 14-26, disc 2):
1) These are works meant to represent Schumann's remembrances of his childhood. Given his fierce battles against depression and mental illness throughout his adult life, they are surprisingly--almost unbelievably--peaceful and happy.

2) Once again, many of these works sound like they'd be playable by relatively novice pianists (with the obvious exception of "Catch Me"), and yet they are detailed, well-painted scenes, packed with emotion. Scene #1, "About Foreign Lands and Peoples" is possibly one of the most elegant, simple and beautiful pieces of music you'll ever hear. Who says you have to write sadistically difficult music in order to show your genius at composition?

3) Scene #12, "Child Falling Asleep" perfectly captures the restless uncertainty and fear a child experiences when drifting off to sleep. It's perhaps the one work of this collection that lets you into the recesses of Schumann's unsettled mind.

Notes from Kreisleriana/Fantasies:
1) Kreisleriana is one of Schumann's most highly regarded compositions. It was dedicated to Chopin, perhaps the only other composer of piano works who could be considered Schumann's equal.

2) The first movement is technically demanding, and unfortunately it's surprisingly imprecisely played by Kempff in this recording.

3) Fantasy #2 (track 28, disc 2) shows yet again how Schumann can create compelling music and emotional tension with a simple melody.

4) Notice at 7:29 in Fantasy #2 (track 28, disc 2) how Kempff flubs a note right in the second-to-last chord?

5) Works like Fantasy #6 (track 32, disc 2) bring me practically to tears--how does Schumann do this with such simple and elegant melodies? I'm beginning to think that this guy is one of the greatest composers of the 19th century.

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