Schumann: Piano Sonata in F minor

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WORKS: Piano Sonata in F minor; Fantasie in C; Kinderszenen; Papillons; Waldszenen; Geistervariationen
PERFORMER: András Schiff (piano)


Critics of piano recordings often talk about virtuoso fingerwork; it’s much rarer for the feet to get the credit. But if you want the living definition of virtuoso pedalling, listen to András Schiff in the ‘Aria’ movement of Schumann’s F sharp minor Sonata. Somehow Schiff manages to create an eerie hallucinogenic sheen around the lines and harmonies, yet the textures never blur or thicken. It’s the most impressive realisation of Schumann’s challenging pedal markings that I have ever heard.

Schiff’s ability to ‘voice’ piano writing is perhaps his outstanding feature as a performer. Who else could make the involuted textures of the final Geister (‘Ghost’) Variations sound so telling? The message here is that Schumann didn’t lose his technical grip along with his sanity – this is how he meant it to sound.


And the whole set is full of the pure, Olympian beauty and intellectual sharpness that characterise Schiff at his finest. The only question is, how ‘Olympian’ do you want your Schuman to sound? Quirky lateral thinking, nervous fragility, the disarming ability for mood to turn on a sixpence – aren’t these essential to Schumann too? Make no mistake, this is superb playing, magnificently recorded, and anyone who cares about Schumann will want to hear the original finale of the C major Fantasie, Op. 17, with which Schiff concludes his performance. But for a fuller, kaleidoscopically richer Schumann, go to Sviatoslav Richter’s classic Fantasie and Papillons, and to Nikolai Demidenko for the Sonata. Stephen Johnson