1839, Year of Piano: Humoreske; Nachtstücke, Op. 23; Arabeske; Blumenstück; Faschinsschwank aus Wien; 3 Romanzen, Op. 28; Bunte Blätter, Op. 99 – extracts; 4 Klavierstücke, Op. 32 – Fughette; Phantasiestück, Op. 124 No. 19
Alexandra Papastefanou (piano)
First Hand Records FHR112 119:11 mins (2 discs)
Schumann’s creativity came in agitated bursts, and if 1839 was a wonder year for his piano music, it was also one of anxiety about his long-hoped-for union with Clara. The first work chronologically here, one of three ‘little pieces’ which found their way into the Bunte Blätter – ‘Variegated Leaves’ – of Op. 99, was actually a gift for Clara on Christmas Eve 1838. What we get is the full rainbow, not just the manic and introspective sides of the composer, and for that the admirable Alexandra Papastefanou doesn’t often go far enough in terms of contrasts and dynamics. Starting as I did with the Faschingsschwank aus Wien (‘Carnival Jest from Vienna’) which begins disc two, the interpretation struck me as a rather ‘mezzo-fortist’ one, without the sudden fantasy that a great pianist finds in the changes of character (try Richter, for instance, in the ‘Scherzino’). The Humoreske is more impressive – here you do get the distant glint in the eye, the patience for long swathes of ‘stuck’ mood, the significance of the becalmed finale. The sphinx doesn’t give up its secrets here, nor should it.
Papastefanou also makes a rich, oaky sound in middle to lower register, fitting for the dark colours of the Nachtstücke (which Schumann thought of calling ‘Corpse-Fantasia’, though they don’t come across as strictly funeral-marchy). Again, I’d have liked more contrasts in the Three Romances; the central F sharp major idyll doesn’t quite pierce the soul. But the sequence is the thing; both Schumann and Papastefanou can withstand straight-through listening. And the notes by Jonathan Summers are very detailed on background.