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James A. Altena
Fanfare, January 2011

The violin sonatas of Robert Schumann are played and recorded far less often than one would expect for a composer of his stature and compositions of such high quality. Unfortunately, they have dwelt under the light of an exceedingly ill-omened star. All composed between 1851 and 1853, shortly before Schumann’s final complete breakdown in 1854, it became common early on to dismiss them as inferior works that were incipient reflections of the composer’s declining mental state. Indeed, Clara Schumann withheld the third sonata from publication, and it did not appear in print until the Schumann centenary in 1956, with a corrected critical edition appearing only as recently as 2001. The third sonata is a curiosity in another respect as well; two of its movements, the Intermezzo and Finale, were originally written for the composite F-A-E sonata for renowned violinist Joseph Joachim, to which Brahms contributed a scherzo and Schumann’s protégé Albert Dietrich the opening movement. After the original presentation to Joachim, Schumann composed two more movements of his own to replace those by Dietrich and Brahms. The original composite F-A-E sonata was published in 1935, some 21 years before Schumann’s own integral version, in an edition riddled with more than 700 errors, which further inhibited positive knowledge and reception of Schumann’s portions of it.

The present recording is significant on three grounds. First, it presents all the violin sonatas from the recent critical edition of Schumann’s complete works. Second, it is, so far as I can discover, the first recording of these works on period instruments (one previous recording, on Jecklin, apparently used a fortepiano but a modern violin). Third, the performers have placed the works in a broader context by surrounding them with contemporaneous compositions from members of Schumann’s inner circle—his wife, Clara; the violinist Joachim; and Clara’s half-brother by her mother’s previous marriage, Wolfgang Bargiel. A decision whether or not to buy this set will depend in good part on how much weight one assigns to each of these factors, especially the latter two, since there are other recordings of these works made from the new critical edition.

For many people, their disposition toward period instruments in mid 19th-century repertoire may be immediately decisive. The ones used here—a 1731 Cremona Stradivarius with catgut rather than steel strings and an 1836 Hammerflügel—sound exactly as one would expect: less robust and more transparent, less silken and more rustic, with more rapid decay of sound and less reverberation. Offsetting this, the recorded acoustic is very much on the resonant side. My own preference here happens to be for modern instruments, but even so I find these performances satisfying and attractive. Certainly, there is no lack of commitment and passion in the interpretations by Schaumann and Hammer, which are at once both energetic and lyrical, and leavened throughout with subtle rubato for expressiveness.

As for the companion works, the three short pieces of Schumann’s op. 94 are the composer’s own adaptation of his original works for oboe and piano. (Schumann also prepared a version for clarinet at the same time.) They are lovely miniatures and vastly superior to the inconsequential romances of Joachim and Clara Schumann also included on this set; the works by Clara are particularly weak, though the third one makes a better impression than the first two. The Bargiel sonata is another matter; this is a terrific piece that cries out for inclusion in the standard repertoire and almost overshadows the Schumann sonatas. The masterly first movement, with an extraordinarily memorable declamatory first subject using the notes of a minor triad, and a contrasting second subject of galloping triplets, is in a Mendelssohnian Sturm und Drang mode, but with a dramatic weight and fire that bring to mind both Beethoven and Liszt. The second movement, cast in A-B-A form with a theme and variations in the outer portions, is in Mendelssohn’s more lyrical vein but agitated in the middle section. The finale has a main theme with a mild Gypsy flavor reminiscent of Brahms, with whom Bargiel was acquainted through Schumann. This set is worth acquiring for the Bargiel alone.

What if one adamantly prefers modern instruments here instead? Having sampled about a dozen other recordings of the integral Schumann sonatas (and confining myself only to recordings including all three, as opposed to only the first two), I was surprised and pleased to discover that virtually all of them are worthy alternatives. But if you favor period instruments, you won’t go wrong with this set either.

Steven E. Ritter
Fanfare, January 2011

These are of course period instruments, one an 1836 Streicher fortepiano adeptly played by Christoph Hammer, with Gudrun Schaumann (a former student of DeLay and Milstein, avid periodist and touring artist) playing a Stradivarius Cremona from 1731 using various period bows. The main meat on this recital is the three Schumann violin sonatas, played with an extraordinary amount of power and passion showing that the instruments of the time could indeed handle the demands of the composer. But then again we run into the problem of vibrato versus non-vibrato, and Schaumann’s choices as to when to offer it strike me as being completely whimsical; it’s not that any of her selections offend, it’s just that there is no rhyme or reason to them. Some places sound curiously Mutteresque in their contrived implementations (and those who have heard Anne-Sophie Mutter’s recordings of the last 10 years know what I mean), yet other places it feels as if the violinist is getting caught up in the moment and using one of the natural expressive devices that comes to mind—vibrato—without a care or concern in the world as to “authenticity,” assuming that no vibrato at that period of time is authentic—which I don’t. Also the period piano seems to me placed distinctly in the background, artificially so, in order to beef up the violin sound, so I am not sure what we get is a realistic presentation. This is no sin in itself, as many recordings do this; but it would be nice to be able to rest assured that the sonic image ably reflects the reality of these two old instruments in terms of natural balance. I cannot complain about the Schumann sonatas, very nicely put forth here. Period fanciers will no doubt delight in this release, and will not get cheated one instance in the quality of the Schumann.

And there are other reasons that make this release worthwhile. The op. 94 is not one of them in my opinion, not that it is anything less that solidly played, but simply because I don’t think the alternative-instrument versions Schumann provided come anywhere close to the oboe original. Likewise the Joachim Romance, a tuneful and steady work if unaffecting and basically superfluous. But Clara Schumann’s Three Romances have always been a favorite, and are nicely sketched here.

The real reason that makes this a release worth acquiring is the formidably lush and fervent sonata by the half-brother of Clara Wieck, Woldemar Bargiel, nine years younger that Schumann, and a man he adored his whole life. He held varied positions in Germany and Rotterdam, many thanks to the suggestion of Schumann and efforts of Mendelssohn, and was a close friend of Brahms, collaborating on the complete editions of music by Schumann and Chopin, and dying just before Brahms. He did not leave a lot of music behind, but what he did leave is of exceptional quality, and his First Piano Trio garnered much critical praise. But somehow his rather dark and sonorous Violin Sonata, dedicated to Joachim, seems to have gone unnoticed, and is never really mentioned by the dedicatee at all. We will have to assume that this is simply a historical oversight as it is hard to imagine such a fine work going by the wayside. Its length (30-plus minutes) proves it a major effort, and I find not a dull moment, an excellent addition to this release titled The Circle of Robert Schumann.

Whether I would purchase this set based solely on the Bargiel is an open question, but it is tempting, though I am not normally inclined to period instruments. Those who are should have no trouble deciding, as this has much to offer.

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