Review by Andrew Desiderio
SCHUMANN Davidsbündlertänze, op. 6. Humoreske, op. 20 • Costantino Catena (pn) • CAMERATA 28357 (66:04)
This is only the second review of a disc of piano music I’ve written for Fanfare, and much to my delight they are both new releases of Schumann’s music. Schumann is a continued source of joy and inspiration in my own musical life, and the piano works in particular are some of his most adventurous in terms of compositional technique and expressive content. It is a welcome change to hear pianists approach Schumann as a consummate master of his craft—one of the most progressive of his time—rather than just the passionate dreamer who lost his marbles. To be clear, though, subjectivity is integral to Schumann; by his own admission, his music is deeply influenced by life, and is ultimately a reflection of the poetry of existence. After all, Schumann was part of that first generation of post-Beethovenian composers to unite music with poetry, and ultimately with the universal subjectivity of our inner psychic landscapes.
Merging this philosophy with Classical craftsmanship is where we find Schumann’s magic. I heard this in Luisa Guembes-Buchanan’s revelatory album Robert Schumann: Perspectives, which I reviewed in Fanfare 42:2. Her restraint in those performances points us toward Schumann the Classicist, and less toward Schumann the pining Romantic; I’ve found that a tendency toward the latter often the cause of, and excuse for, sloppy performances.
In the present release, pianist Costantino Catena also captures that magic by infusing his own technical prowess into Schumann’s sound world, brilliantly capturing the musical subtleties and idiosyncrasies that abound in his music. Davidsbündler, for instance, has some harmonies that are just plain odd. The aura of the second piece, “Innig,” is closer to late Brahms or even Satie than to contemporaries Chopin and Mendelssohn—the harmonies hang in space, and each perfectly sculpted phrase tantalizes us with a cadence that we only receive at the very end. Schumann’s cross-rhythmic texture is complex, but Catena’s playing is a precise balance of fluidity and markedness. In the no less intricate fourth piece, “Ungeduldig,” Catena plays up the inherent urgency of the fluid but nervous melodic line, and gives it such an impassioned sense of drama as to transcend its syncopation-etude character and into a love duet that lasts all of one minute—a quickie in music, if you will.
Catena’s performance of the op. 20 Humoreske is also transcendent, artfully elevating it beyond its unfortunate reputation as the neglected younger sibling of the mighty Kreisleriana, op. 16. Although the Humoreske does share some of Kreisleriana’s features—its form as a collection of patchwork-like pieces, moments of shocking dissonace, achingly beautiful melodic lines—it has its own surprises and delightfully complex personality. Schumann recognized this, and said so in a letter about it to Clara: “The whole week I have been sitting at the piano, composing and writing, laughing and crying all at once. All this you will find nicely portrayed in my op. 20, the grand Humoreske….”
And Catena portrays this frenzy of emotion nicely indeed. While there are many good recorded performances of this work out there, there are plenty that either don’t get to the emotional heart of the piece, or gloss over the meticulous details of the score. This piece does have its moments of wild impetuousness, but Catena is never sloppy, for he knows that Schumann is not Liszt. Every note counts, and rhythm and phrasing are the secret weapons the composer uses to mobilize his ideas. The opening phrase of the Sehr rasch und leicht section of the Humoreske’s first movement, for instance, is bookended by the same measure, upending our innate sense of symmetry to keep our ears actively engaged in the play of notes.
More technical sleight-of-hand is found at the start of the second movement, in one of Schumann’s boldest rhythmic designs. In the left hand, the melody is in the bass, underneath an offbeat syncopated phrase; in the right hand, there is a more staid countermelody with its syncopated 1 | 2 + 3 | 4 grouping in the first phrase, and what amounts to triple-time grouping in the second phrase. All of that is underneath a compound melody in three parts whose main voice is a sequence of suspensions, offset by a 16th note from the downbeat on top of a descending, four-note pattern over the course of the phrase. Such an elaborate description seems to describe a page from Ligeti or Sorabji, but combined with Schumann’s command of harmonic direction the sound is smooth as silk, as is Catena’s playing, which also somehow manages to bring out the complexity of the passage just enough for it to sound a little unsettling. The recap of this Hastig movement is also noteworthy for its interpretative boldness—in the score, it comes back not verbatim but more as a hazy remembrance of the beginning. Most pianists I’ve heard barrel through this passage, fermatas and all, but Catena takes his time, allowing each sonority a life of its own as it fades into oblivion.
And lest we think that Schumann is all Sturm und Drang, Humoreske has some truly, well, humorous moments (although of the intellectual kind) that come through in Catena’s performance. The first movement has a gallivanting passage that seems to make a mountain out of a molehill of an arpeggio, rushing about with such a palpable sense of feverish intensity in one of the work’s most exciting moments. The aptly named Mit einigen Pomp movement is composed almost exclusively of cadences; it sounds like a parody of the “Hammerklavier,” with its relentless fanfares, taking itself ever more seriously with each over-the-top phrase and ridiculous little inner-voice canon in the middle. The remaining movements are filled to the brim with prophetic delights: Sehr lebhaft has the wild abandon of cartoon music, the closing harmonies of Innig seem to presage Scriabin by several decades, and the only, hazy chord of the finale’s metrically disorienting opening phrase sounds like the “Tristan” chord in its infancy.
At the risk of this reading like a paid endorsement, I find the use of the Fazioli piano in this recording to contribute greatly to the richness of Catena’s performance. Although Fazioli pianos have only been on the market for about 40 years, they’ve come to represent a new direction in piano performance. Whereas the older models are heavier in construction and playability, Fazioli models require a lighter touch from the pianist, allowing greater agility and overall control of the sound. It’s perfect for executing Schumann’s exquisite counterpoint and the highly developed sense of rhythmic design; it’s almost as if Schumann wrote with this type of instrument in mind. Of course, no matter how novel the construction of the instrument is, it’s only as good as the person playing it. And in this case, musician, instrument, composer, and music unite into an unforgettable whole. It is clear that Catena not only pays attention to the multitude of articulations and phrasings, but to their innate drama and expressivity, using the piano as a flexible tool to execute these Schumann scores.
This might wind up being a Want List item for me at the end of this year, and it is a must-have for any fan of Schumann. This is sheer, three-dimensional poetry. Andrew Desiderio