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Fanfare, July 2005

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Don Satz
MusicWeb International, March 2005


Symphonic Etudes - Okashiro/Pro Piano, Brand/APR, Richter/BBC, Schliessmann/Bayer Phantasie - Arrau/Philips, A. Fischer/BBC, Richter/EMI, Horowitz/Sony

Bernd Glemser, a frequent pianist for Naxos, has already recorded the three Schumann piano sonatas and received favorable reviews. Now he is putting on record two of Schumann's masterful piano works written when the composer was at the height of his musical inspiration in the 1830s.

As with most of his piano works containing varied miniature pieces, Schumann kept re-working his Symphonic Etudes until he made the final revision in 1852 that had an opening theme and twelve etudes/variations. Quite a few pieces were discarded along the way, and Johannes Brahms eventually added five of them to the work as an appendix.

The treatment by pianists of these five posthumous variations is very interesting and definitely impacts the symmetry of the Symphonic Etudes. Without the posthumous variations, the work tends to be slanted toward Schumann's alter-ego Florestan (the man of action). Given that the posthumous variations favor Schumann's other alter-ego Eusebius (the man of reflection), their inclusion in the work can balance the Florestan-Eusebius musical arguments.

How do pianists treat these five posthumous variations? Some leave them out of the work, but this approach denies listeners the opportunity to hear some wonderful music. Another approach is to append them to the end of the work as indicated by Brahms; the problem here is that no attempt is made to balance the Schumann alter-egos, and the five posthumous variations simply sound like isolated encore pieces. A third method used by some pianists is to place them together in the middle of the work, an approach I consider to be rather thoughtless and without musical merit.

The approach I prefer is to strategically place each posthumous variation in the body of the work with the intent of maximizing musical contrast and architectural sweep. This is how Glemser treats the challenge, and he is fully successful. In fact, his entire performance is highly enjoyable. He gives the Florestan character great confidence, exuberance, and power as evidenced by the menacing initial theme of Etude 1, the wild and impetuous Posthumous Variation 1, the desperation of Etude 2, the fierce determination of Etude 6, and the phenomenal energy of Etude 10.

Eusebius and his musical arguments with Florestan are also well presented. Prime examples are the playful nature of Etude 5, the inquisitive and pleading declarations of the Posthumous Variation 4, and the mystery of Etude 11. Particularly rewarding is the delicious tickling of the keys in the Posthumous Variation 5; Glemser's performance is as gorgeous and nostalgic as any in the catalogs.

Overall, Glemser's Symphonic Etudes is excellent. It may not scale the heights as do the comparison versions in the heading, but Glemser is not far behind and the super-budget price is certainly advantageous.

Alas, much of the allure of the disc is diminished with Glemser's performance of the Phantasie in C. Unlike the Symphonic Etudes, the Phantasie consists of three large-scale movements primarily concerned with Schumann's love for Clara Wieck and the desperate state of his emotions when her father would not allow Schumann to see her. The 1st Movement revolves around Schumann's great passion for Clara, and Glemser conveys only a trace of it compared to the outstanding version from Annie Fischer. The 2nd Movement takes the form of an intense and exuberant march, Glemser again missing the mark through what seems like a reticence to really dive into the music. He does improve considerably in the 3rd Movement love song to Clara, but it's too late to rescue the performance. Throughout the disc, the soundstage is very good and clear although there is some congestion in the strongest attacks.

Given a Phantasie in C that is not up to snuff, the best I can do is give the new Glemser disc a mild recommendation. Even at super-budget price, half a disc of excellent music-making does not make for an attractive recording. I suggest that readers investigate the superb discs listed in the heading, each of which is far superior to the Glemser offering."

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