CD review: Two Schumann recordings (Kuerti, Hewitt)

SchumannCD reviews: Schumann bicentennial recordings, Canadian style

Recently released Schumann recordings by Canadian pianists Angela Hewitt and Anton Kuerti reveal stylistic differences worth pondering

By Kevin Moore

This past year has seen many recordings and concerts celebrating the bicentennial of the births of Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) and Robert Schumann (1810-1856). Such coincidences of year seem to be good excuses for performers to do music that is well known and loved and for scholars to publish new papers on related research. In 2009 it paid off handsomely with the bicentennials of the birth of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) and death of Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809). In fact, Mendelssohn was shown to be one of the few major composers of the 19th century with multiple unpublish major works that are currently unknown to the listening public.

Two recent CDs of the piano music of Schumann are positive examples of the bicentennial spirit, interestingly both by Canadian pianists. Angela Hewitt’s new recording was released in November by Hyperion Records. Recorded in Dobbiaco, Italy in November of 2009 it contains the Kinderscenen, Op.15, Davidsbundlertanze, Op.6 and the Piano Sonata no.2 in G minor.

Anton Kuerti’s new Schumann recording was released this past July by Doremi records. Recorded in Toronto in the summer of 2009 it contains the Fantasie in C major, Op.17 and the Piano Sonata no.2 in G minor, Op.22, including both the original Presto Passionato finale, and Schumann’s second finale.

At the outset, it’s easy to recommend both of these recordings. These are pianists of vast experience and the playing throughout is on a very high level. And they both outdistance most of the recordings available in recent years in this repertoire. But some of their differences of approach are interesting and well worth discussing.

Angela Hewitt has become famous largely through her performances and recordings of the complete keyboard works of J.S. Bach. And a year ago she spent an entire season playing concerts featuring Bach’s Well Tempered Klavier which she did complete in two concerts, each repeated in several dozen locations around the world. That year culminated in her second recording of the complete set. Her Bach is indeed vividly musical, tastefully restrained, and often focused on the dance forms that dominate much of that music. She plays with immaculate textures, clarity of line, and a deeply affecting understanding of the basic aesthetic of Bach’s music. She has also made recordings of other Baroque literature including three CDs of Couperin and one of Rameau.

Hewitt’s Bach playing is not her only strength, as evidenced by her recording of the complete piano works of Ravel –– one of the finest such recordings ever made. She has also championed the piano music of Olivier Messaien, and recorded works by Chabrier, Granados, the complete Chopin Nocturnes, the Beethoven Sonatas for Piano and Cello with cellist Daniel Mueller-Schott, and is engaged in an apparently complete Beethoven piano sonata project with three CDs released to-date.

Anton Kuerti is of the next older generation. At age 72 he has an entire lifetime of playing experience on the highest level. When Kuerti was still a student of Rudolf Serkin at The Curtis Institute in Philadelphia he won the prestigious Leventritt Competition, which led to appearances with a long list of famous orchestras and conductors. In 1974-75 he recorded the complete Beethoven piano sonatas and the Diabelli Variations, Op.120 for Aquitaine and Columbia/Odyssey, one of the deepest and most satisfying recordings of those pieces. In fact, Kuerti is most famous for his frequent Beethoven performances and a classic recording of the five Beethoven piano concertos with Andrew Davis and the Toronto Symphony in 1986 (available since 1997 on CBC Records). There are also recordings of both Brahms concertos, both Mendelssohn concertos, the Schumann Concerto, most of the solo works of Schubert, and solo works by Chopin, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Glazunov, Scriabin, and Berg. His more recent re-recording of Beethoven’s last five piano sonatas (Analekta, 2004) was hailed by Gramophone Magazine as “Kuerti at the summit.” The same Magazine’s critic also referred to him as “one of the great Schumann players of our day.…” In 2007, Kuerti received the Schumann Prize from the Schumann Gesellschaft in Germany in recognition of his efforts in this repertoire.

I have had the pleasure of hearing several wonderful live performances by each of these great artists, many more by Kuerti because he is older. Unlike some pianists I have heard, the recordings of both pianists merely confirm what happens on the concert stage in live performance.

Every serious performer struggles with stylistic issues that fundamentally affect their interpretive decisions. One issue is the disconnect that exists between the original intentions of the composer and the current expectations of listeners. Every era has its own aesthetic of style in musical performance –– one that changes with fashions and concert experience. Serious performers must find the right balance among those factors if they are to communicate with a modern audience in music written nearly two centuries ago. Some performers don’t seem to care about this and give performances that sound merely willful, or like a conglomeration of all the most recent recordings. One could pose the issue starkly as a choice between merely entertaining the listener, or enlightening and educating him/her. The contrast between the two present recordings is certainly not that stark; nor is either less than stylistically convincing. Yet the differences are nevertheless significant.

Angela Hewitt’s new recording is the second she has made of works by Schumann. Her earlier recording, also on Hyperion and released in 2007 contained the Piano Sonata no.1 in F-sharp minor, Op.11 and the Humoresque, Op.20.

On this new CD, I found the Davidsbundlertanze, Op.6 to be the most convincing. It is Schumann’s most intimate and emotionally revealing work. There are a series of 18 relatively short pieces, most of them labeled at the end with an “E” or an “F” for Eusebius (“E”) and Florestan (“F”), Schumann’s pen names for characters he assumed in his prose writings. Eusebius represented the dreamy and lyrical side of his nature, and Florestan the impetuous and passionate. Hewitt revels in these vivid contrasts between the many fiery and passionate pieces and some of the most intimately confessional and touching pieces that Schumann ever wrote.

Her tendency to a liberal application of rubato, an expressive pushing and pulling of the tempo, is done tastefully. There are times, however, where it is a bit repetitive and predictable, and a few spots where it obscures S
chumann’s characteristic rhythmic displacements and syncopations. That’s noticeable in the Sonata in G minor, in the second theme of the first movement, the middle section of the third movement Scherzo and the slower sections of the finale.

The Kinderscenen, Op.15 (Scenes from Childhood) have fewer of the rhythmic complexities found in the Davidsbundlertanze, but they are quite pushed and pulled in a manner that I don’t always find convincing. This is particularly true in the famous Traumerei (dreaming), no.7 of the 13 pieces that make up Kinderscenen, which seems quite self-consciously “expressive.” It may be personal to me, but I prefer a more restrained, classical approach –– as heard, for example, in classic accounts by Clifford Curzon or Radu Lupu. Her final piece, though, Der Dichter spricht (The Poet Speaks) is particularly touching and a marvelously effective ending of the set.

A more judicious and restrained use of rubato is found when you turn to the new recording by Anton Kuerti. It is certainly deeply expressive playing, yet the rhetorical stretching or compressing of phrases feels slightly more natural and convincing. The Piano Sonata no.2 in G minor makes the best and most interesting comparison since it appears on both of these CDs. The opening movement is marked So rasch wie möglich (as fast as possible). Hewitt does take it quite fast, but takes a lot of time at the ends of phrases, and in between phrases. That certainly moderates the technical difficulties for the pianist, but for my taste seems a bit contrived and somewhat predictable. With Kuerti, although the total timing of the first movement is within a few seconds of Hewitt’s, it sounds faster and is more continuous. And his rubato never obscures the syncopations or rhythmic games that Schumann so frequently plays.

The second movement Andantino (Getragen) is particularly interesting. Hewitt does this very beautifully, with a lingering, tender mood that is quite touching. Kuerti is more restrained and moves it along a bit more. In fact, there is a significant difference of tempo with timings of 4’20″ for Kuerti and 5’43″ for Hewitt. In the third movement Scherzo: Sehr rasch und markiert, both performances are quite similar although again Kuerti’s syncopated middle section is much clearer and more direct.

Kuerti’s recording also includes the original finale of this Sonata. Entitled Presto Passionato, it wasn’t publish until 10 years after Schumann’s death. Evidently Schumann replaced this because his wife, Clara, thought it too difficult. And Kuerti infuses the piece with richness, color and passion in a very convincing performance. He plays this in its right order following the first three movements, and then adds Schumann’s replacement finale. As he points out in his excellent notes, that’s akin to the two scherzos that Schumann placed in the later version of the Piano Sonata no.3 in F minor, Op.14. And it works very well.

This comparison led me to revisit Kuerti’s older recording of the Davidsbundlertanze (Analekta, recorded in Toronto in 1990), which is not included on the current CD. After listening to Hewitt’s very fine performance, Kuerti took me to a different and higher level of color, richness of pedal, and technical command. I felt that I was in the presence of a master musician and truly great Schumann player. It is richer in sound, even more vivid in contrasts, and musically convincing. And his restrained but effective rubato shows the same differences noted in the two recordings of the G minor Sonata. It is a classic, truly memorable performance.

As for Kuerti’s Fantasy in C major, Op.17, this is simply one of the great recorded performances of the piece. It’s a work which Kuerti first recorded on LP in 1971 (CBC Radio Canada Broadcast Recording) and which I heard him play in recital at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa in the fall of 1970, again in Niagara-on-the-Lake during the summer about 6 years ago, and yet again this past summer at Koerner Hall at the Toronto Conservatory. This most recent performance was part of an all-Schumann recital that remains one of the finest live solo recitals I have every heard. On each occasion with Kuerti’s Schumann Fantasie, I heard a pianist deeply immersed in this masterpiece and communicating it on the highest level. This recording confirms that judgment.

The essential differences in the two present Schumann recordings is that Kuerti tends towards a more restrained, classical approach to tempo, phrase structure and rhythmic flow. But he also uses the pedal more richly for color, and infuses the music with tremendous passion. Hewitt plays with immaculate clarity and very convincing musicianship. Her pedaling is masterful yet used more for legato connection than color. They both have stunning technical command of the instrument.

The Kuerti performance sounds like it is recorded more closely to the instrument, compared with Hewitt, which sounds more spacious, but both feature very fine warmth of tone and piano sound. And both recordings contain liner notes by the artists that are articulate, interesting and scholarly. These are serious, thinking scholar/artists fully able to articulate convincing views of the pieces they are recording.

Despite minor observations about interpretive approach as written above, I enjoyed both these recordings and can recommend them highly. While I find Kuerti’s approach more stylistically convincing, that’s a question of individual taste more than level of music-making involved. These are wonderful artists and you can’t go wrong with either recording.

Details Box:
Genre: CD reviews, works of Robert Schumann
What: Angela Hewitt plays Kinderscenen, Op.15, Davidsbundlertanze, Op.6 and the Piano Sonata no.2 in G minor, released November, 2010; Anton Kuerti plays Fantasie in C major, Op.17 and the Piano Sonata no.2 in G minor, Op.22, released July, 2010
Artists: Pianists Angela Hewitt and Anton Kuerti
LabelsHyperion Records, CDA67780 (Hewitt); Doremi Records, DDR-6608(Kuerti)