Beethoven • Haydn • Schumann
Schumann never seems to have found an entirely satisfactory form for his Etudes symphoniques. When he revised them 15 years after they were originally published, he omitted two of the most eloquent variations (they were subsequently restored by Clara Schumann) and even more bafflingly consigned a further five variations, containing some of the most beautiful music in the entire series, to the reject pile. They were rescued by Brahms, who edited them for publication in the 1870s. Like a good few pianists, Emanuel Ax cannot resist delving into this discarded treasure-trove, and he scatters three of the variations among his performance of the ‘official’ series. His playing throughout is as unfailingly musical as we have come to expect from him.
Ax gives a vivid account of Beethoven’s often aggressive and always wilfully original Eroica Variations Op. 35 (so called because their theme and some of their compositional procedures appear in the finale of the symphony of that name), but his performance of Haydn’s profoundly tragic F minor Variations is marred by his inconsistent observance of repeats, only some of which he includes. It’s a pity, because it’s largely the symmetry of the first half of the piece that throws into relief the open-ended nature of the astonishingly forward-looking coda. But for the rest, this is an admirable recital, and very well recorded.