Alexander Lonquich: Robert Schumann/Heinz Holliger (ECM New Series 2104)

Schumann:Holliger

Alexander Lonquich
Schumann/Holliger

Alexander Lonquich piano
Recorded November 2008 at Auditorio Radio Svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Alexander Lonquich follows up Plainte Calme, an all-French program that introduced ECM listeners to this erudite German pianist, with a pairing from which New Series aficionados are sure to derive much pleasure. Composers Robert Schumann and Heinz Holliger may have intersected more recently on Aschenmusik, but here’s where it all began.

Schumann’s 1838 Kreisleriana and Holliger’s 1999 Partita share much in common. Both bear dedications to pianists (Schumann’s to Frédéric Chopin and Holliger’s to András Schiff), both are overflowing with ideas, and both immerse themselves in narrative to the last measure. Lonquich traverses the original 1838 version of the Kreisleriana, which, according to the composer, was “heavily revised,” many of its intricacies elided or otherwise obscured in its now-standard 1850 print. Lonquich notes an ego shift from the pianistic Schumann to the symphonic Schumann, but argues for the psychic exactitude of the earlier version, less glossed by a man rightly concerned with his public image. Indeed, the later changes “sacrificed many subtleties to the need for simplicity and clarity,” making the Kreisleriana, in modern parlance, more user-friendly.

Schumann’s wildly popular performance piece presents to us, as Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich notes in the CD booklet, “the dark, nocturnal sides of romanticism: wild dreams, phantasms, obsession, insanity.” Taking E. T. A. Hoffmann’s The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr and its protagonist, Johannes Kreisler, as inspiration (the novel shares another ECM connection with György Kurtág, whose Hommage à R. Sch. also makes reference), the music reveals a growing dissatisfaction with what Schumann saw as the piano’s limitations. Not that we have reason to agree. The sweeping cascades that open the collection make for some invigorating listening. From cautious steps to headlong rush, we are led up spiral staircases and over archways, following Lonquich’s expert navigations of quietude interspersed with flushes of activity. With such a robust palette at our scrutiny, there’s plenty to pique the interest of repeat customers—whether in the reflective fourth movement (every bit as enchanting as Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata) or in the sportive seventh—all the way to the curlicue finish.

Schumann has long occupied the “true center” of Holliger’s music thoughts, and in the Partita it’s easy to see why. Jungheinrich argues for a romantic affinity in Holliger’s penchant for the “fractured and insecure,” a characterization that in this instance takes sometimes wistful, sometimes complex form. If the title seems to cast its net over Schumann into Bach, it’s only because it seeks a structural traction in the face of romanticism’s self-deprecating infrastructures. Shuffled into the usual Prelude, Fugue, and Chaconne—all of which reflect Holliger’s prodigious ability to twist templates into deeply personal effects—are a few brilliant additions. Most notable are two Intermezzi marked “Sphynxen für Sch.” These achieve the cavernous atmosphere of their namesake by strumming inside the piano, sometimes in the barest whisper of skin on string, amid a pollination of microscopic adjustments. Another clever insertion is the “Csárdás obstiné,” a strangely beguiling vignette of interlocking helixes that seems a nod to Franz Liszt: an intriguing choice, given the complicated nature of Liszt’s relationship with Schumann. Such strategies, however, are to be expected of Holliger, a composer who has always indulged in a wry sense of patterning.

In addition to being a unique recital performed by its ideal interpreter, this is one of the finest pianos ECM has ever recorded. The instrument simply shines at Lonquich’s fingertips, as if eager to feast on every note until only resonant midden remains.

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