Schumann: Abegg Variations, Op. 1

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Schumann
LABELS: Alpha
WORKS: Abegg Variations, Op. 1; Kinderszenen, Op. 15; Arabesque in C, Op. 18; Albumblätter, Op. 124; Blumenstück, Op. 19; Clavierstücke in Fughettenform, Op. 126; Theme with Variations in E flat, WoO 24 (Geister); Variations on a theme by Beethoven; Carnaval, Op. 9; 3 Romances, Op. 28
PERFORMER: Eric Le Sage (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: Alpha 169

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With this release, Eric Le Sage concludes his epic and outstanding Schumann survey. The most obvious selling point here is the inclusion of works unknown even to most pianists – the strange but engrossing Beethoven and Geister Variations, for instance, the Seven Fugues, and most of the Albumblätter. Beginning with Op. 1 and ending with music surrounding Schumann’s suicide attempt, this is effectively a biography in sound. 

As such, it should be listened to in the presented order. It’s a mostly entrancing, sometimes disturbing and a pervasively haunting portrait of a great mind and spirit doomed to confusion and, finally, disintegration. 

The most popular of all Schumann’s piano works, Carnaval,draws from Le Sage a performance which triumphs unobtrusively over extreme familiarity to create an aura of spontaneity and freshness which beguiles the ear and the imagination alike. This is pianism and musicianship of a rare order. Sad to report, given the high quality of this series as a whole, this represents a peak in a rather erratic landscape (oddly appropriate, in a way, given the character of Schumann’s own output).

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The opening Abegg Variations, while pianistically beautiful throughout, are beset by surprisingly unvarying inflections, too much near-literal repetition and a plethora of audible barlines, despite a generally buoyant left hand. The brilliant Toccata suffers from a surfeit of chugga-chugga dupleness, development is sparse, and the final cadence stops rather than ends. The Kinderszenen, too, is a (generally distinguished) curate’s egg. On balance, though, this remains a worthwhile and intriguing programme. Jeremy Siepmann