Davidsbündlertänze op. 6; Nachtstücke op. 23 (Arrau)


It is possible to be a lifelong Schumann specialist without ever becoming consciously aware of the linking motto-themes in his op.6. It is equally possible to play or hear that work and notice little else. No doubt one needs two distinct viewpoints, emotional and functional, for the full experience of Schumann. Perhaps Charles Rosen comes closest to an exact focus. Other versions of op.6 tend to blur into other styles. Kempff's reading recalls Beethoven; Gieseking's anticipates Debussy. Arrau's sounds like Brahms, which is surely nearer to the essential flavour of Schumann. Those two shared a taste for the same linking themes in B major and minor. Brahms's op.8 Trio in those keys was later, like Schumann's op.6, withdrawn and revised; no doubt they both felt that their expressive features had become too revealing. But Schumann's main changes were (typically and uniquely) in the words and letters he had written over and under the music of the first edition, rather than in the notes.

     Arrau audibly retains the earlier text; so presumably he had the original written directions in front of him. Even so, he sometimes seems to me to miss his way. For example, no.3 is headed “Etwas hahnebüchen” (“clodhoppingly”). It is asking too much of so sensitive and discreet a pianist. But producing a velvet touch, instead of the rough homespun that Schumann ordered; is a material change; and arguably not a fitting one. Again, what of those stressed dissonant G sharps in nos.2 and 17, which lose so much of their point and poignancy when politely elided? There are of course many delicate touches such as the harmonic shift from B to D in no.5, where the piano sounds as agreeably surprised as the listener. But it is not wholly Schumannian to favour the exquisite at the expense of the forceful.

   The shades of meaning in the Nachtstücke seem better adjusted to Arrau's vision. Their thematic links, though clearly intentional, are deliberately more obscure. The nocturnal procession of muftied figures that moved through Schumann's mind is here beautifully depicted. Perhaps the first edition is brought into play here too? The B natural (instead of the Gesamtausgabe's B flat) in the tenth bar from the end of no.2, and in the analogous earlier passage, may sound more mystifying than Schumann intended. No doubt all these readings have been carefully thought out and studied by the master interpreter. But again the idiom and the lack of accent sometimes sound (to my ears) faintly foreign to Schumann.  


The Musical Times, Feb., 1974 (p. 140) © the estate of eric sams