Schumann: Humoreske, Op. 20; Novellettes, Op. 21; Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 14; Nachtstück, Op. 23/4

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Schumann
LABELS: ECM
WORKS: Humoreske, Op. 20; Novellettes, Op. 21; Piano Sonata in F minor, Op. 14; Nachtstück, Op. 23/4
PERFORMER: András Schiff (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 472 119-2
Few pianists could have made this programme work: an entire recital of Schumann pieces that are sometimes considered poor relations of Kreisleriana and the F sharp minor Sonata. They may not be Schumann’s finest, but they have their own glories and Schiff, recorded live in the Tonhalle, Zürich, in May 1999, treats them with the affection, empathy and respect they deserve.

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The Humoreske, a peculiarly episodic creation, is notoriously difficult to bring off convincingly. Lupu’s superb Decca recording accentuates its feverishly crazy tendencies, but Schiff concentrates instead on the rhapsodic poetry and élan that unify the torrent of different ideas; the result holds together perfectly, rather like a song cycle. There is a delight in the lyrical atmospheres from the first note, while the lively passages positively fly along, Schiff’s light touch and delicate pedalling filling busy textures with airiness, freedom and clarity. Though Lupu’s performance is colourfully poetic and virtuosic, the extra sense of communicative purpose from Schiff’s live concert gives him the edge. His Novelletten unfold with a narrative sense of direction and the F minor Sonata is full of impetuous, Schumannesque passion mingled with inward soul-searching and outstanding songfulness in his highly distinctive sound. There’s an additional bonus in the fourth Nachtstück, a touchingly reflective, valedictory encore.

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All this is amplified by the sense of occasion, atmosphere and adrenalin that you experience at the best recitals. It’s quite an achievement to capture that on disc, along with a little applause and remarkably few coughs, and the sound quality is exceptionally fine. An absolute winner.