Piano Music (Arrau)

Faschingsschwank aus Wien, op 26; Arabesque in C, op 18; Humoresque in B flat, op. 20. Claudio Arrau. philips

Sonata in F sharp minor, op 11,; Fantasiestücke,op 111. Claudio Arrau. philips

Carnaval, op 9; Etudes symphoniques, op 13. Bruno-Leonardo Gelber. hmv


If there are two kinds of musical imagination: conceptual and sonorous, Schumann's was the former. That's hard on the performer; how can tell whether his concepts are sound?

    The so-called Carnival Jest from Vienna is often taken to be programme music which (as one edition owlishly observes) “pulsates with the animation of a true Carnival merry-making!”. But suppose that Schumann is making merry with us? Faschings­schwank is an obviously made up word-made up from those letters perhaps, asch/scha, as the music is composed from those notes? [see  I bars 10, 16, 35-7, 100, 107-8, 120-1, 168-9, 199-201, 204-6, 334-7, 389, 409, 433, 510, etc] It was (for the same reason?) the original title of Carnaval, op 9. Both works share not only the same cipher but the same notion of musical portrayal by allusion and quotation; Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schubert, Beethoven, and of course Clara, are made to join in the dance. In this interpretation the pianist would be playing the part of Schumann, master of ceremonies of the imagination.

    So perhaps is Claudio Arrau in his interpretation of op 26. He has been rebuked for being too introspective. But an inward look is arguably not only what the music means but what it actually is. He accordingly keeps any smiles well behind the mask in the Humoresque, well behind the veil in the Arabesque. It is hardly paradoxical to say that he sounds at his best in the unheard melodies of the former, where what Schumann calls an “inward voice” sings of Clara between the lines. The latter also has its secret themes and quotations (from op 6 and a Schubert lovesong); and Arrau plays its main themes like a sigh and a whisper, or a wisp of cipher, as if it too were just a variety of ASCH be coolly flicked from the fingers.

    The F sharp minor sonata is similarly given an air of rather careworn mystery; and this again is arguably true to the life of the music. Much of its thematic material comes from an early song about a mortally-wounded soldier thinking of his loved one; Schumann had been deeply hurt in his battle for Clara, and he likened this musical outpouring to his own life's blood. Finally, in what is perhaps his finest achievement on these records, Arrau perfectly conveys the harassed brooding quality of the ambitiously-numbered op 111.

    But the other face of Schumann is less well observed; the F or Florestan range is soft-pedalled. We must turn to the other side of the medal for bravura, won outright by the young Bruno-Leonardo Gelber for his dashing attack in, and on, the Etudes symphoniques. For all its virtuosity his playing is admirably poised and controlled, while his Carnaval is animated and pulsating enough for the most exigent of editors. Those for whom the music has that meaning will welcome these performances; and at the price so should all Schumannians of whatever persuasion. But some may still sigh for those shadows that Arrau finds and Gelber's brilliance dispels.

    Not even the judgment of Richter or the wisdom of Solomon seems able lo give us both together. Perhaps it's just not in the range of human nature or human vision lo see simultaneously both sides of Schumann; or a record; or a question.


The Musical Times, Jun. 1969 (p. 640) © the estate of eric sams