Schumann: Faschingsschwank aus Wien

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COMPOSERS: Schumann
LABELS: DG
WORKS: Faschingsschwank aus Wien
PERFORMER: Maria João Pires (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 437 538-2 DDD
At the centre of Carnaval stands a curious musical footnote. Headed ‘Sphinxes’, it simply lists the permutations of the four-note motif on which this cryptographic work is based. Most pianists regard the ‘Sphinxes’ as something for the eye rather than the ear; but Mitsuko Uchida boldly plays them, and their presence casts a metaphysical shadow over the surrounding music. Uchida’s is altogether a compelling performance, characterised by a remarkable beauty of tone. Her Kreisleriana is similarly thought-provoking, though here it is possible to feel that some of the more intimate numbers border on the self-indulgently languid.

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The opening movement of Faschingsschwank aus Wien (‘Carnival Jest from Vienna’) presents the performer with the challenge of providing variety out of material that is unusually symmetrical and repetitive. Maria João Pires’s wayward rubato in its punctuating ritornello is hardly the answer; nor is her curiously etiolated treatment of its triumphant F sharp major episode (containing a distorted reference to the politically sensitive Marseillaise) any more convincing. A pity, because the remaining works on her disc are played with great sensitivity.

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Dénes Várjon treads less well-worn paths. With the exception of the beautiful second of the Op. 28 Romances (also included in Pires’s recital), this is largely unknown repertory. Not that Várjon is a persuasive advocate: his playing generally lacks imagination and charm, and he does little to shape the music’s phrases. His piano, moreover, could do with a visit from the tuner. Misha Donat