EPTA - Winter 2012 - Written by Angela Brownridge
One of the greatest Schumann interpreters of all time
During the early days of his career Jerome Rose recorded an album of Schumann that contained two of the works on this Blue-ray disc: Davidsbundlertanze and Kreisleriana. I was privileged to be present in London's Wigmore Hall when that recording was made and remember vividly Rose's enviable technique, impetuosity and vigour. It was a very physical performance, being that of a young man caught up in the power he was able to wield with an extraordinary passion and wildness, yet with compelling control and accuracy. Listening to and watching this great pianist in this latest recording, the same passion and verve have remained throughout a life in which his performances have gained even more depth of character, more dynamic interest, and that elusive way of playing Schumann which provokes the feeling that it is as the composer would have heard it in his mind. Rose has been described as "the Last Romantic of our own age", and one telling feature which is consistent in all his performances of these major works of Schumann is the freedom of expression in the moulding of the phrases, coupled with stunning virtuosity applied with consummate ease. It is an incredible feat to be able to produce performances such as these live in concert, and the sound on the Blue-ray is sharp, immediate and superior to that of DVDs. The film itself has enough variety of shots to maintain the interest, and Rose's playing is a masterclass in economy of movement in everthing from hushed cantabile to ferocious power.
For pianists who play romantic music there has been perhaps more emphasis on the works of Chopin and Liszt than on those of Schumann. The difference which makes Schumann a more complex composer, and therefore more difficult to interpret, is the personal element in which he exhibits the two sides of his personality, naming them Florestan (the extrovert), and Eusebius (the dreamer). This brings an extra dimension to his music which demands the imagination of the performer to step inside these characters to reveal them. The Davidsbündlertänze constitutes a self-portrait provided by Schumann of his "varied states of mind", highlighted and objectified by the characteristics of Florestan and Eusebius. It is also a representation of the Davidsbünd, Schumann's imaginary spiritual brotherhood of artists whose aim was to combat the superficial nature of contemporary culture. The composer creates music for dancing, romantic love and longing, whilst exploring the innermost thoughts of his mind. There are many recorded versions of this piece ranging from Gieseking (1942), Rosen (1963), Kempf (1967), Ashkenhazy and Hough (1988), and Pollini (2001). To take the opening of Hough's version which gives a preview of both Florestan and Eusebius, there is a myriad of contrasts, and his initial approach is too dreamy without the immediate plunge into the energy which Rose creates; and Rose is the only pianist who takes notice of the 'Immer lebendiger'('livelier') - at the bottom of the first page. Pollini's 'Innig' ('profound, intimate'), one of the Eusebius pieces, is beautifully tender. Hough's is rather slow, almost too introspective, and Rose captures the mood perfectly by not over-indulging the sentiment. Pollini's 'Ungeduldig' ('impatient'), number 4, is too circumspect, and this is where Rose is at his best, driving the music forward. This applies to number six, 'Sehr Rasch' ('very fast'), where with Rose there is no compromise; and the uninhibited upsurge of number 9, although marked 'Lebhaft' ('lightly'), reflects the wild side of Schumann's nature. The ending , 'Nicht schnell' (not fast), benefits from Rose's understatement, as he understands the need for simplicity to put this wonderful set of pieces to bed.
Fantaisiestücke Op. 12 is a set of eight pieces, the title being inspired by the 1814 collection of novellas 'Fantaisiestücke in Callots Manier' by one of Schumann's favourite authors E T A Hoffman. These pieces again represent the duality of Schumann's personality in the form of Florestan and Eusebius. The opening piece belongs to Eusebius, 'Des Abends' a gentle picture of dusk. 'Aufschwung' ('soaring, very fast') finds Rose able to stretch the interval of a tenth in the first bar, (a motif repeated many times), with consummate ease, whereas other pianists such as Brendel appear to have more difficulty. Brendel's 'Grillen' (Whims) is lacking in energy, and whilst his 'In der nacht' (In the night') has clarity and beautiful articulation, Rose's interpretation strikes me immediately as being in a different class from the many others I have heard. It's spooky, cloaked in mist, and moves faster than other versions of which its agitation and turbulence makes it the most compelling version, along with 'Traumes Wirren' ('disturbed dreams') which moves at the ultimate fast pace while losing none of the detail.
Kriesleriana - an enigmatic title of which, in a letter to Simonin de Sire, Schumann wrote: (talking of his new compositions): "of all these, Kreisleriana is my favourite. This title conveys nothing to any but Germans. Kreisler is one of E.T.A Hoffmann's creations, an eccentric, wild and witty conductor. You will like some of it. The inscriptions over my pieces always occur to me after I have finished composing the music." So the wildness begins with the first piece, and I immediately went to Argerich's recording of 1984 knowing that she would be able to deliver all the excitement needed, with the magical contrast of the mesmerising second section: in the closing bars, she almost becomes hysterical, and loses some of the necessary weight. Rose maintains his equilibrium with just a little more emphasis on the build-up of phrases and the important sforzandos. In the second piece, 'sehr innig und nicht so rasch' ('very intimate and not too fast'), Argerich is slower, creating expressive lines, whereas Rose moves forward, and it made me ponder the fact that most pianists opt for a musical performance of movements like this, pausing at the end of phrases, where perhaps Schumann envisaged something on less preconceived lines. Highlights of Rose's performance are number 3, 'Sehr aufgeregt' ('very excited') moving slightly faster than other versions, with highly expressive playing in the slower section with the undulating phrases beautifully captured. In number 6, 'Sehr langsam' ('very slow') Argerich opts for a much slower interpretation which is very Bachian in the second section. Rose has the wind behind him in the demi-semiquavers of this passage,which is not saying they are too fast; and in number 7,
marked 'very fast', Rose is dazzling, able to employ a breathtaking speed. Again he is totally convincing in number 8, 'Schnell und spielend' ('fast and with ease') with its wispy, enigmatic feel, finding just the right tempo for the lopsided left-hand octaves.
The Symphonic Studies Op. 13 form a contrast to the previous sets of pieces, in that they are variations and therefore concerned with musical development rather than exploring the characteristics of Schumann's personality. Ashkenazy takes a slow tempo for the theme, and Richter is extremely slow. In variation 1 Ashkenazy is muted, and Rose utilises the spikyness of the dotted rhythms to good effect. In this set there are also two movements which make me think I have never heard such a telling interpretation as Rose's with as much intensity of feeling in the melody and throbbing bass of variation 8. The music is propelled forward without losing any of its depth, and in the next variation one can hear every note of Askenazy's, as one would expect, but with Rose the figurations swirl in waves to great effect. There are speed changes in Ashkenazy's finale when the music drops to piano. Rose keeps up the momentum , with fast octave- and chordal-playing being one of his great strengths. He provides a convincing end to what can sometimes sound somewhat banal.
The G minor Sonata Op. 82 brings to an end this Schumann recital; both its outer movements demand great speed, the first being marked 'as fast as possible', and the fourth and last movement 'very fast', with a coda which exhorts the pianist to play faster and even faster, which might strike one as being impossible! There are ways round this, but a recording by Anton Kuerti falls sadly short of really trying to get a move on. It's very four-square, the slow movement also being at a very slow tempo which robs the music of movement. Richter decides to go for the very fast tempo, although not from the start. He gets into his stride only after the notorious octave passage near the beginning where the left hand has to stretch in tenths and the right to leap in octaves over ninths. From here on Richter's priority is speed which he can deliver marvellously, often quite lightly. Rose links his speed to the melodic element in the first movement, which is a different approach from that of a headlong dash. The interspersed slow sections he takes quite fast with only a little of the perpetual slowing down the composer asks for. His slow movement has some beautiful cantabile, growing to one of the most passionate climaxes I have heard. The third movement is thrown off with the aplomb it requires, and the final Rondo does meet its 'presto' specification, with a lightness which makes it swift rather than heavy, not really going for the crescendos. Richter also goes for the speed, and Rose in the final section is equally formidable, particularly considering that he is playing live.
It is very difficult to compare CD recordings with this Blue-ray DVD, but naturally the addition of a picture, as well as some of the best sound-quality one could hope to find, would make it a must-see and -hear version. Overall, what is most compelling is Rose's experience of the works he plays, which has given him a consistency and insight, coupled with his technique which knows no limitations. He is without doubt one of the greatest Schumann interpreters of all time.