Thomas Zehetmair: Robert Schumann (ECM New Series 2396)

Zehetmair Schumann

Robert Schumann

Thomas Zehetmair violin, direction
Orchestre de chambre de Paris
Recorded February 2014, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris
Tonmeister: Hannelore Gurtet
Recording supervision: Guido Gorna
Engineer: Frédéric Briant
An ECM Production
Release date: March 18, 2016

The music of Robert Schumann (1810-1856) has slowly coalesced on ECM’s New Series into a poetic genre all its own. In the capable hands of violinist Thomas Zehetmair, who rendered the labyrinthine depths of the German composer’s string quartets in equal parts crystal and shadow, and here conducting the Orchestre de chambre de Paris in an even more dynamic program, it has taken on new life.


For the Violin Concerto of 1853, Zehetmair plays from an Urtext edition to which he himself made important contributions, poring laboriously over the original manuscript to correct the piece’s many errors and elevate it to its deserved status in the pantheon of violin literature. The first movement is almost a concerto in and of itself, moving with the force of an ocean wave crashing on shore. The second movement is emblematic of its composer’s flair for merging strength and delicacy, and of the soloist’s ability to balance the two with artful resonance. As he and the orchestra leap into the final stretch with elasticity, we find ourselves nearly overwhelmed by invention. Few concertos feel as corporeal as this, seeming to pull on every tendon and sinew until it trembles with joy. Although originally thought unplayable by violinist Joseph Joachim (for whom it was written) and Clara Schumann, and never heard until 1937, this recording lends it a resplendent inevitability. Zehetmair’s direction is as vibrant as his playing, and in both one finds an abundance of insight.

The Symphony No. 1 (“Spring”), op. 38, of 1841 emerged only after many failed attempts, and in its present iteration abounds with Beethovenian exuberance, but always with that indefinable touch for which Schumann was so highly regarded. The programmatic flair of the first and fourth movements, in combination with the robust exposition between them, articulates a timeless pastoralism in concise terms. It’s an atmosphere rightly shared by the Phantasy for Violin and Orchestra, op. 131, of 1853. It brilliantly concludes the program, funneling every impulse that preceded it into a flourishing ecosystem of ideas. Ironically enough, in this rendering it feels more reflective of reality than the preceding two works, if only by virtue of its fiery exegesis. Zehetmair brings his all to the table, leaving not a single crumb to show for it.

The engineering is appropriately raw and clear—so clear, in fact, that a page turn is audible in the right channel in the first movement of the Violin Concerto—and allows us to feel immersed but never assaulted.

Robert Schumann/Heinz Holliger: Aschenmusik (ECM New Series 2395)


Robert Schumann
Heinz Holliger

Heinz Holliger oboe, oboe d’amore
Anita Leuzinger violoncello
Anton Kernjak piano
Recorded July 2012 and November 2013, Radio Studio Zürich
Engineer: Andreas Werner
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
An ECM/SRF2 Kultur co-production
Executive producer (SRF): Roland Wächter

The solar system of Swiss oboist and composer Heinz Holliger has always thrived in a clockwork universe of innovation, but Aschenmusik may just be his most super nova yet. This second major ECM reckoning with the legacy of his much-admired Robert Schumann not only follows in the footsteps of Romancendres but also retreads them with finer shoes. By paying homage to Schumann’s Five Romances of 1853, forever lost to flames by wife Clara’s own consignment, Holliger works through personal frustrations over unrecoverable music by fleshing out the body of its ghostly narrative—the only indication that remains of its certain brilliance.

Romancendres is written for the same combination of cello and piano, and in this expanded version opens the ears to further allusions and cryptographies. Both instruments push their harmonic boundaries, thereby revealing—if not also reveling in—Holliger’s inner turmoil over the loss of Schumann’s score. Cellist Anita Leuzinger walks a tightrope, which like an electrical line through pruned trees carries energy powerful enough to kill. The cello’s vocal qualities and the piano’s percussive are magnified to the point of vulnerability, as emphasized in the fractures and tremors of the latter movements. Yet none of it approaches the masterstroke of the tensile second, in which pianist Anton Kernjak tinkers with a vessel that is constantly being broken by the Leuzinger’s need for sailing. The underlying now becomes the overlying and spins the globe not on an axis of poles but equator. In this decidedly rhythmic piece the piano is beaten, struck, and plucked while the cello ascends microscopic ladders and leaves only water-drop pizzicati to show for its swan dive.

Surrounding this modern morsel are some of Schumann’s latest and greatest, of which the Six Studies in Canonic Form, Op. 56, are a delight to hear in such fine company. Holliger, who here plays the violin part on the reedier oboe d’amore along with Leuzinger and Kernjak, makes a convincing case for these neglected masterworks. More than studies, they are fully matured bodies of exceptional beauty and proportion that effortlessly shine Baroque counterpoint through the foliage of Romanticism. Some are more playful and have an air of the salon, while others are gravid, tonic. Still others are more bucolic, but ever aware of the physical relationships between instruments. The marching fifth receives a particularly artful navigation of pianistic harmonies and rhythm changes, while the elegiac sixth ends on a sigh.

The Three Romances for oboe and piano, Op. 94, showcase Holliger’s peerless tone on the oboe. In these pieces he navigates an ocean swell of piano, its tidal differences yielding the wreckage of a crumbling mind. The insistent, even desperate, quality of the music speaks of an unrequited love that yearns to jump across vast stretches of barren landscape and straight into the heart of one who decomposes beneath it. The final movement unfolds like a map to a very different territory, leaving two shadows for every ray of light.

The second movement of the F-A-E Sonata, excised from a four-part exercise written in collaboration with Johannes Brahms and student Albert Dietrich, is an extant Romance. In this arrangement for oboe (originally violin) and piano, its lilting poetry serves as a bridge into Schumann’s First Violin Sonata, Op. 105, played here on cello. Yet even the glorious first and final movements can do little to conceal the darkness encroaching on Schumann’s cells. Such dynamic realism is not a fight against fantasy but an acknowledgment of its necessity. The central Allegretto follows an arc-like text, which the musicians read with such fluency and through which they relay objective punctuation and subjective expression.

True to the music, in which depth is to be found within the score, not around it, engineer Andreas Werner foregoes studio ornaments in favor of something less mitigated. Having deftly centered Holliger’s oboe on Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis and allowed the violin of Thomas Zehetmair and viola of Ruth Killius to reach out with so much of their spirits intact, Werner was an ideal choice for the present recording. Schumann’s art proves its centrality, activating as it does so much of what makes us live, even when we are no longer around to be aware of living.

(To hear samples of Aschenmusik, click here.)

Robert Schumann: Geistervariationen – Schiff (ECM New Series 2122/23)


Robert Schumann

András Schiff piano
Recorded June 2010, Historischer Reitstadel, Neumarkt
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Pianist András Schiff, best known for his surveys of Bach and Beethoven, combines the former’s austerity and the latter’s dynamism in this, his second ECM reckoning with Robert Schumann. More so than the first, the present program tracks a composer stepping out from Beethoven’s shadow and into a light very much his own. As any Schumann interpreter perhaps must, Schiff brings awareness of attendant shadows as well. These he evokes through a balance of restraint and transparency.

To be sure, the Papillons (1829-31) one of Schumann’s earliest piano works (it is his Opus 2), benefits from just such a well-rounded approach. This collection of 12 innovative vignettes linked in brazen montage is as colorful as it is compact. Indeed, each section would feel like the beginning of a longer excursion were it not already so elaborate. The C-sharp Waltz and Waltz in D are notably filigreed in this manner, while the playful chromatism of the Polonaise in D leaves a tannin-rich aftertaste.

The first sonata, his Opus 11, follows. Written in 1835 and dedicated to his future wife, Clara, it is an effusive and utterly heartfelt work, one from which Clara would draw themes for her own compositions. From the introduction alone, it’s clear that Schiff has hit upon the right formula. The modest Aria that follows is, at just over three minutes, a lovely foil to its 13-minute predecessor, and all the more enchanting for it. Even in his propriety, Schiff teases out an epic flow from its underlying fortitude. The final two movements pulse with theatricality. The last is engaging from the first, not least for Schiff’s handling of its quieter passages, the sonata’s most delicate. Through both jagged stitching and smoother threadings of the needle, a brocade of melody and atmosphere emerges that works lyrically, but with a certain sense of muscle that is distinctly Schumann.

The Kinderszenen or “Scenes from Childhood” (1838) are his most widely performed pieces and represent another innovation: children’s music for adults. Among the first of their kind, they have inspired many imitations but none quite so charming and musically direct. Moments of quietude and solitude increase among those of play as they drift onto darker, more dreamlike avenues, culminating in the grimly apportioned “Der Dichter spricht” (The Poet Speaks). Whether opaque or translucent, all 13 are suffused with a spirit that in Schiff’s hands feels as fresh as the ink drying on the original score.

On the subject of original scores, the Fantasy in C of 1836 will be either the decisive or divisive hinge, depending on your taste. Schiff works vitally through the first two movements, his left hand working overtime in support of the flowering right. Furthermore, he brings out that special stream of consciousness that pervades even the softest moments of Schumann’s writing at its most mature. In a brief liner note, Schiff delights in his possession of a first-version manuscript of the third and final movement. In this iteration, Schumann revives the final theme of the first movement—a strategy later scrapped for its pedantry. For the tried-and-true, Schiff tacks on the final, published version at the album’s end, leaving those used to the latter searching for it there. Perhaps a more useful strategy would have been to switch the two, but this is one pianist’s vision, and to it we are invited to abide. Whatever your preference, an inherent boldness perseveres.

The Waldszenen (1848-49) or “Forest Scenes” are similar in title to the Kinderszenen, but reflect a starkly different spirit. Schiff seems to draw energy directly from nature and experiences of observation for a reading that is understated yet lyrical. He brings enough insight to inspire but not to overwhelm, allowing the solace of each to occupy its respective niche with plenty of room to slumber.

Last on the program proper is Geistervariationen, or “Ghost Variations.” These pieces of 1854 are rarely performed, much less with such veracity, and comprise Schumann’s final piano work. Brokering some urgency here and there, the main theme and its five variations bespeak a tender privacy that is self-assured and wise, despite being written in the wake of a failed suicide attempt and soon before admission into an asylum. And yet, here it stands, calm and collected, in need of a wider circle of interpreters to make its visions known.

On the whole, this has the makings of a benchmark record, although some listeners will want to pair it with other classics in the field. These Kinderszenen, for instance, may not replace Horowitz’s beloved traversal of the same for CBS, but are a close second and well worth as much consideration as Schiff has put into them. Neither will Richter’s take on the C-Major Fantasy likely forfeit its place at the top for some (or any) time to come. Nevertheless, what we have here is another example of a profound relationship between artist and label, triangulating with a composer whose piano music glistens anew, as if of its own desire to be heard.

(To hear samples of Geistervariationen, click here.)

Zehetmair Quartett: Schumann (ECM New Series 1793)


Zehetmair Quartett
Robert Schumann

Zehetmair Quartett
Thomas Zehetmair violin
Matthias Metzger violin
Ruth Killius viola
Françoise Groben cello
Recorded August 2001, Radio Studio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Producer: Manfred Eicher

Composed during the summer of 1842, Robert Schumann’s three string quartets bear dedication to Felix Mendelssohn and are his only chamber works without piano. A few years before their appearance, while sitting in on a series of quartet rehearsals led by Mendelssohn’s friend and concertmaster, Ferdinand David, Schumann was first struck by the greatness that Ludwig van Beethoven had brought to the form. Determined to match that greatness, he found himself obsessed by “quartettish thoughts” and ready to tackle the form at which he had long desired to try his hand. He set out on the daunting task of writing his first quartet. Sadly, this piece did not survive, but we do have the subsequent threesome that is his Opus 41, of which two have been recorded for this instant reference recording.

Schumann struggled with inner demons all his life in a constant balancing act between his burgeoning romanticism and intellectual acumen. It was only in Beethoven’s titanic and immovable reputation, says Martin Meyer in his liners, that Schumann turned to both internal and external sources for inspiration. Where Beethoven’s “absolute” approach seems to cast the greater shadow, this is as much due to the inordinate amount of light shed upon it as to any inherent superiority. Schumann’s programmatic idiosyncrasies provide as much fascination, and these the Zehetmair Quartet brings out at every turn.

The fluidity of the String Quartet No. 1 in A minor is surpassed only by that of the performance itself. The Mendelssohn-influenced Scherzo brings the gelatinous bones of the Introduction to vibrant life with palpable connective tissue. The results are playful yet graceful, honed in rustic elegance in spite of their aristocratic borrowings. After a speculative Adagio, we arrive at the scraping violin and resplendent tutti passages of the Presto. Such alluring energy leaves us in need of the Andante that opens the String Quartet No. 3 in A major. A beautiful legato theme, eerily similar to the central oboe/flute passage in Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers,” emerges in the violins. Zehetmair moves like a breeze across water, while the others capture every wave of sound with unbending accuracy. Muted strings in the second movement build to a rousing density that is easily the disc’s highlight. Pizzicato strings enchant in the third, while the masterful Finale inspires with its urgency.

With the string quartets Schumann tightened his grasp of modality in a careful exchange of sentiment. There is what Meyer calls a “clouded lyricism” throughout these ternary works that is enhanced all the more by the enlivening performances on this recording. And while the fact that it won the Gramophone Award for Album of the Year is no small consolation prize, it seems but an afterthought when reeling from the music that earned it.

András Schiff: In Concert – Robert Schumann (ECM New Series 1806/07)


András Schiff
In Concert – Robert Schumann

András Schiff piano
Recorded at Tonhalle Zürich, May 30, 1999
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

András Schiff returns to ECM with a live all-Schumann recital. Capturing what he sees as the composer’s “burning inventiveness,” the Hungarian pianist allows himself no contrivance in letting the notes speak on their own terms. He jumps right into the deep end with the vibrant Humoreske op. 20 (1838). Written during a time of separation from his future wife, Clara Wieck, in it Schumann incorporates a hidden “inner voice,” which he imagined as Clara’s own. Throughout its invigorating 28 minutes, we are treated to a mosaic of inner passions. Schiff handles its fluid transitions, intermezzi, and stylish moves with requisite grace, allowing plenty of space in the slower passages for the music’s full effect to shine. This is followed by the Novelletten op. 21 of the same year, which comprise the composer’s most extensive piano work. Though distinguished by its exuberant approach, it too embraces Clara’s “voice from a distance” (Stimme aus der Ferne) as a key animating force. Throughout, Schiff captures Schumann’s dynamic range admirably well, teetering between the Apollonian and Dionysian at every virtuosic turn. Yet it is in the “Concerto without Orchestra” that is the Op. 14 Piano Sonata in F minor (1836, rev. 1853) that we encounter the recital’s most luxurious moments. The pianism shines here in a finessed first movement, while making the third (a set of variations on a theme by Clara) sing like love itself. The final Presto rolls off Schiff’s fingers like water. Schumann had originally intended to call an 1839 tribute to his dying brother by the title Leichenphantasie (Corpse-fantasy). Clara convinced him to change the title for publication, thus giving us the Nachtstücke (1839), of which No. 4 constitutes a consolatory, if bittersweet, encore.

This was the first recording of Schumann’s piano music I ever heard, and is one I will always return to for reference. Schiff proves he is just as comfortable with the Romantics as he is with the Baroque masters, and in Schumann has found a most rewarding synergy. The music is, despite its grandiose touches, undeniably intimate, casting one deep look inward for every outward glance. Prosaic though they may be, these performances are anything but analytical. Whatever your familiarity with Schumann, this is an album you will want to hear.

Hommage à R.Sch. (ECM New Series 1508)

György Kurtág
Robert Schumann
Hommage à R.Sch.

Kim Kashkashian viola
Robert Levin piano
Eduard Brunner clarinet
Recorded August 1992, May and September 1994, Kammermusiksaal Beethovenhaus, Bonn
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

During his lifetime, the idiosyncrasies of Robert Schumann earned him little of the posthumous admiration that now abounds. A Romantic to the core, he found solace in the hollow spaces of his rich musical ideas, manifested to greatest effect in the potent miniatures he left behind. Perhaps no one has inherited this legacy in such a life-affirming way as György Kurtág. In this brilliantly realized album, which pairs both composers in a fortuitous program, we hear not only the bridge that arches between their worlds, but also the river that flows beneath it. Kurtág’s micro-compositional Neun Stücke für Viola solo are threaded by thinnest of intentions and a captivating dynamic contrast between nervousness and lyricism (though, to be sure, what qualifies as lyricism here exists always at the molecular level). The fragment takes on sensory completeness, compensated as it is by the symbiosis of performance and listening, so that even in absence of an audience, the performer remains the immediate receiver of the audible gesture. Jelek (Signs) op. 5 brims with the rich, heady double stops of Kim Kashkashian’s faultless phrasing, ensuring that hidden messages ring with all the robust fragility that surrounds them. Kurtág’s lines are by turns pliant and rigid, vaccinated with moribund attention. Distinctions between “interior” and “exterior” become irrelevant and fold into a shapeless entity with neither. The album is ordered in such a way as to centralize the viola, so that when the piano and clarinet emerge in Hommage à R.Sch. op. 15d, they seem to flank it from all sides. Through this transition, the music becomes more “visible.”

With the Märchenbilder (Fairy Tale Pictures) op. 113, we finally encounter Schumann in the flesh, though “stumble over” might be the more accurate term, as Kurtág’s ghostly echoes release us so effortlessly that we barely have time to breathe. These four vignettes for viola and piano melt into the ecstatic dramaturgy of the Fantasiestücke op. 73, in which the clarinet has its say before merging with the viola in the uniquely scored Märchenerzählungen (Fairy Tales) op. 132. These are profoundly embodied works that render any descriptive words mute to the touch, leaving me with little to offer for all their wonders.

Steady performances from all three musicians—but especially from Kashkashian, whose strings unravel like a mummy in the dusky light of an interstellar awakening—make for an engaging experience from front to back. Therein lies a pyramidal cycle, with the composers at its base, and a thread of life at its apex, pulled ever taut by an unseen alien hand.

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Schumann: The Violin Sonatas (ECM New Series 2047)


Robert Schumann
The Violin Sonatas

Carolin Widmann violin
Dénes Várjon piano
Recorded August 2007 at Auditorio Radio Svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“Maybe Schumann, as opposed to so many other composers, really is the one whose black dots on white paper represent the least that is actually to be said.”
–Carolin Widmann

Musicologists and historians alike often paint Robert Schumann as a tragic figure. The mental degeneration of this prominent composer has become a prototypical example of the genius in decline and of the ineffability of humanity’s most creative energies. Admittedly, I have been guilty of this characterization myself. But when we hear a recording like this, all that myth-making goes straight out the window. These sonatas are among Schumann’s final works, the first two having been written in 1851 and the third in 1853, and are no less engaging for it.

Sonate Nr. 1 für Pianoforte und Violine in a-Moll, op.105
This is an absolutely glorious sonata. The piano parts are alive with ideas and seem to come in waves. The second movement is one of Schumann’s most questioning, cautiously approaching the knowledge it seeks before growing into confidence. The third movement catches us almost unawares with its colorful changes in rhythm and atmosphere. This is the most eclectic portion of the sonata, a beautifully synchronized braid of instrumental forces. After the dainty, lively introduction, suspicions loom threateningly over the finale’s exuberant communion until they crumble into piles of declamatory dust. Only then do we realize the goal no longer means anything, now that it’s unobstructed.

Sonate Nr. 3 für Violine und Pianoforte in a-Moll, WoO 2
Schumann’s third sonata was withheld by his wife Clara for years before it was ever heard. Its central position in the album’s program isn’t an apology, but a gesture perhaps meant to ensure that it be taken seriously. The opening piano thumps like a nervous heartbeat. Its balance is so fine that one false move could easily upset it, but the virtuosity of our duo keeps it perfectly intact, so that we may admire it from every angle and with every assurance of safety. The second movement evolves in retrograde motion to an arousing end, after which the piano’s bass note lingers beyond the violin’s curtailed exultation. The third movement climbs determinedly, aware of its own lightness, its many open paths. The cascading pianism here renders the music into a raging river. Like a salmon swimming upstream, the violin must struggle with all its might to get to where it’s going. Because its life is determined by that very struggle, it relies solely on the challenge of the current.

Sonate Nr. 2 für Violine und Pianoforte in d-Moll, op. 121
Also known as the “Grand Sonata,” Schumann’s second shows off its complex unity at every turn. The opening movement is an epic journey, finding its resolution no fewer than three times before bowing out, while the sonata’s remainder combs through the populous landscape of human interaction. The lesson: in agreement there is no unity, but only the semblance of disparate voices blending into one, whereas true unity is achieved in keeping those voices separate, sharing the awareness of an internal bond that can never be made externally aware.

Widmann and Várjon both see much in the way of modern sensibilities in these sonatas, bringing their progressive approach to every nuance therein. Their dynamic control is so effortlessly realized, they never manage to lose the energetic thread that binds them, even in the quietest moments. Widmann intentionally plays on open strings whenever possible, allowing the rich sonority of her instrument to ring through with an almost harsh beauty, while Várjon take full advantage of the studio’s acoustics to further flesh out the piano’s inherent resonance. If these sonatas are pieces of a larger puzzle, then these two fabulous musicians have foregone the corner pieces and worked their way from the center to the margins.