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Robert Schumann, The Complete Works for Piano Trio – Christian Tetzlaff, violin; Tanja Tetzlaff, cello; Leif Ove Andsnes, piano, on EMI Classics

Robert Schumann, 1850
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Robert Schumann, 1850
Robert Schumann, 1850

Robert Schumann, The Complete Works for Piano Trio
Christian Tetzlaff, violin
Tanja Tetzlaff, cello
Leif Ove Andsnes, piano
EMI Classics
John Fraser, producer
Arne Akselberg, balance engineer

Disc 1:
Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, Op.63
Piano Trio No. 2 in F Major, Op.80
Sechs Stücke in kanonischer Form, Op.56 arr. for Piano Trio

Disc 2:
Piano Trio No. 3 in G Minor, Op.110
Fantasiestücke für klavier, Violine and Violoncello, Op.88
I. Romanze. Nicht schnell, mit innigem Ausdruck
II. Humoreske. Lebhaft
III. Duett. Langsam und mit Ausdruck
IV. Finale. Im Marsch-Tempo

A close look at the notes for this 2-disc set will give one some insight into the splendeurs et misères of the contemporary classical recording industry. A grant from Fond for lyd og bilde, the Norwegian arts organization, and Leif Ove Andsnes’ Gilmore Artist Award funded this recording, making it possible for a major commercial label, EMI, to release a recording of comparatively little-known music by a great composer, played by internationally renowned musicians. Mr. Andsnes owns the copyright and has licensed the recording to EMI. Presumably the recording company didn’t think that the famous names sufficed to counterbalance the obscurity and dubious reputation of the music, for unfortunately the trios, especially the second and third, were lumped in with the rest of what the older literature considered “bad Schumann,” commonly disparaged as unmelodic, difficult, and confused. The rediscovery of these fascinating and very beautiful works has been one of the great pleasures of the past twenty years, once musicians learned how to play them and audiences, still slowly and partially, have learned how to listen to them.

Mr. Andsnes and the Tetzlaffs, brother and sister, have played some of the Schumann trios in their concert programs and decided to formalize their views on the repertoire in a comprehensive recording, which includes not only the three trios, but also the four Fantasiestücke Op. 88 and the six Études in Canonic Form Op. 56, which Schumann originally wrote for pedal piano in 1845. A friend of the Schumanns, Theodor Kirchner, made the arrangement played here. The work is most often played on the organ today, when it is played, and both Bizet and Debussy made piano duet versions. It stems from one of the early passions in the Schumanns’ marriage, when both were voraciously studying counterpoint and Bach. The Fantasiestücke were written late in 1842, as a sort of last gasp in his “chamber music year.” He published them with revisions in 1850. Both the first of the trios, Op. 63 in D Minor and the second, Op. 80 in F Major, date from 1847-8, when Schumann was finishing the Second Symphony and was beginning a project in which he put great hopes, an opera, Genoveva. He wrote the third, in G Minor, Op 110, in 1851, when he was working on his Third Symphony and revising the 1841 symphony, best known in its revised form as his Fourth. That chamber music should imitate the grand gestures of the symphony was anathema to Schumann, but the rich textures and counterpoint of these works hint at the larger concepts that were occupying him simultaneously. None of them could be considered late works, since they were written within the period in which he produced music which came into the repertory relatively early and have remained there.

Asymmetrical themes, with brief, epigrammatic motifs preceding or following more expansive expressions, passing dissonances, and sudden mood shifts reflect Schumann’s idiosyncratic bent as a composer. The subtle details, more easily expressed in a brief piano piece to be played at home for a small audience of cognoscenti, have proven an acquired taste in the larger forms, but today more and more musicians have come under the spell of these under-appreciated treasures and have proven able to communicate their enthusiasm to their audiences. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this recording, since my past response to Christian Tetzlaff and Leif Ove Andsnes has been rather different. Tetzlaff is a musician who immediately conveys all the virtues one would expect from one of the great masters: a patrician technique and tone combined with extraordinary sensitivity to subtleties of expression and an exploratory approach to established classics. His extraordinary cycle of Beethoven violin sonatas at Tanglewood in 2009 showed a winning inclination to experimentation, which made the familiar music constantly fresh. On the other hand, I’ve found Andsnes often rather heavy and dour in his solo and concerto performances. He sometimes seems so wrapped up in his own state of mind that he misses the right mood, especially in works that have a certain lightness and ebullience, like a Mozart piano concerto. I must confess that I was more attracted to the Schumann set by Tetzlaff.

What I heard was a fluent and inspired collaboration of equals, and, for me at least, the most satisfying instance of Andsnes’s work I have yet experienced. His deliberation proved a key component in this exploration of Schumann’s trio writing, not that either of the Tetzlaffs would be tempted by the kind of emotive, mercurial playing which both makes and mars the classic Cortot-Thibaud-Casals recording of the best-known of the trios, the D Minor. All three players seemed in total agreement that they wanted their listeners to hear Schumann’s writing, rather than the energetic dynamics of their own response to it. This approach enabled them to achieve a true revelation—something these misunderstood works have sorely needed.

Both Christian Tetzlaff and Andsnes in particular seemed particularly intent on maintaining a rock-steady pulse in the D Minor—a wise decision. This steadiness never seemed to get in the way of expression. For example the first of the Fantasiestücke, the Romanze, seemed to emerge as a single breath in an almost Furtwänglerian fashion. And if you want to hear the unforced variety and delicacy of tone and the responsiveness of which Andsnes is capable, listen to the final bars of the Finale of the Fantasiestücke. Come to think of it, I’ve only heard him play in the U. S., playing American instruments. Tanja Tetzlaff emerges as the fiery one, interjecting intense, sometimes even rough-sounding phrases into the more Apollonian playing of her brother and the pianist.

The ease with which brother and sister can converse in music is remarkable, and this did wonders for the opening dialogue of the Third Trio in which the piano becomes an equal third. In this way the varying lengths of the phrases reached their full level of potential expression. The three musicians, totally immersed in Schumann’s writing, followed its path through the fluid transitions between exposition development, and recapitulation, bringing it to a gripping close, in what seems like a dissolution of the movement’s sustaining sonata form, even down to the structure of the themes themselves. In the second movement, with its touching main subject, also a dialogue between violin and cello, which becomes more beautiful the more one hears it, the musicians found an especially poignant moment in the feeling of return at the beginning of the second A section, a structural feature negated in Schumann’s treatment of the first movement sonata form. Their attention to detail and self-control served them well in the many shifts of mood and thematic material in the scherzo. I can easily see otherwise capable musicians making a hash of this movement by giving into its mercurial dodging. The final movement struck me as even more of a challenge to bring off. In this case, they succeeded brilliantly by sticking to a pace which was broad enough to give them plenty of room to give each of the seemingly fragmentary, contrasting ideas their full expression…and yes, they showed a fully persuasive grasp of how they fit together in the flow of what I find to be a particularly delightful example of Schumann at his most wilfully eccentric.

The familiarity of the musicians with each other and their deep understanding of the music made any forcing of expression totally unnecessary, but their assurance never seemed virtuosic or self-satisfied. There is an almost leisurely quality to their approach, which only comes to the forefront of our attention when it is really appropriate to the music. This performances, in fact, have the last quality one would expect in a “studio” recording—the feeling of friends making music at home. In fact, the musicians’ solitude in the Østre Fredrikstad kirke, where the recording was made, only added to the feeling of intimacy. The acoustics of this church, where concerts are regularly given, must be outstanding, since the recorded sound, under veteran EMI producer John Fraser, is jaw-droppingly beautiful, certainly one of the finest recordings of chamber music I’ve heard. Both warm and immediate, it provides a perfect ambience for this intimate music-making.

These performances are perfect examples of chamber music as conversation. I’ll return to this treasure of a recording often…and I’ll return to Mr. Andsnes’ concerts with an open mind and renewed enthusiasm.

About Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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