Jerry Dubins über Burkard Schliessmanns neue Aufnahme | on the new recording of Burkard Schliessmann – Robert SCHUMANN Fantasies

In: Fanfare | The Magazine for serious Record collectors,  Volume 48, Number 6, July/August 2024

SCHUMANN Kreisleriana, op. 16. Fantasie in C, op. 17. Arabeske, op. 18. Fantasiestücke, op. 12, Books I and II. Nachtstücke, op. 23. 3 Fantasy Pieces, op. 111. Gesänge der Frühe, op. 133 Burkard Schliessmann (pn) DIVINE ART 25753 (153:28) Reviewed from a WAV download: 44.1 kHz/16-bit

In 47:4, I reviewed a Divine Art set (25755) from Burkard Schliessmann, performing a mix of works by composers near and dear to him: Bach, Chopin, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. At the time, I was not aware that a new three-disc set from Schliessmann was in the offing, one devoted exclusively to Schumann. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, for Schliessmann’s love of Schumann’s music has been a lifelong one that runs deep.

Since the previously cited set already included selections by Schumann, my first order of business was to determine if there were any duplications between the two releases. The short answer is a qualified “yes.” Both the earlier album and the new one at hand contain the complete Fantasie in C, op. 17, which is generally regarded as one of, if not the, most important and technically challenging of the composer’s works for solo piano. They are not, however, the same performance. The earlier recording was captured “live” in March of 2023, while the present recording, as attested to by Schliessmann in his album note, is a studio production made five months later in August of 2023.

There is also one other minor overlap in programming, but it doesn’t really count because it’s just an excerpt, an outtake if you will, from a much larger work. In the “live” recording, Schliessmann treated us to what amounted to an “encore” with the inclusion of the third number, “Warum?” from the composer’s Fantasiestücke, op. 12. Here he gives us the Fantasiestücke in full.

True to its title, Robert Schumann Fantasies, the new set under review, addresses itself to the composer’s catalog of “fantasy” and related-type pieces. So, I suppose the place to start is with a definition of the genre or typology. succinctly defines a musical fantasy—with all of its linguistic variants based on country of origin and musical period—as “a composition free in form and inspiration, usually for an instrumental soloist.” Not very helpful, as that could apply to almost anything. By that definition, Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun could be a fantasy.

Wikipedia refines it a bit further for us, stating that a “fantasy is a musical composition with roots in improvisation, and that like the impromptu, it seldom follows the textbook rules of any strict musical form.”

The fantasy, as practiced by Schumann and other 19th-century composers, is a construct of the Romantic period, but conceptually and contextually the language of musical fantasy extends back to the late 16th- and early 17th centuries, manifesting itself in the organ and keyboard works of Sweelinck and Frescobaldi, and a bit later in the fantasias of Bach.

The difference between those fantasies and the ones we find in Schumann and the musical Romantic in general is that the later period examples are often, if not invariably, associated with descriptive imagery, poetic verse, and/or story-telling. In other words, the 19th-century fantasy is a subset of program music. For Bach, a fantasia was about the improvisatory style of the music, its textural contrasts, surprising harmonies and progressions, and displays of technical virtuosity. It’s doubtful that Bach had any extra-musical motives in mind.

So, let’s pursue the model of the Romantic fantasy stated above and see if it applies—or doesn’t—to some or all of Schumann’s works in Schliesssmann’s collection.

In Kreisleriana, op. 16—composed originally in 1838 and revised in 1850—Schumann asks the listener to imagine in the eight numbers that make up the piece, the deteriorating sanity of the musical genius, Johannes Kreisler, the fictional Kapellmeister invented by the early Romantic author, E. T. A. Hoffmann. Did Schumann foresee his own descent into madness when he wrote the piece? That’s a question for another day. Here we’re confronted with an early example of Schumann’s dueling personalities, as expressed by the music’s sudden and violent swings between storm and calm, fear and euphoria. We meet these characters again in other of Schumann’s works in the guise of the composer’s ego and alter-ego, Florestan and Eusebius.

Can Kreisleriana be listened to as abstract music, without prior knowledge of Hoffmann’s creation of the imaginary musical genius who loses his marbles? Probably, because music does not communicate to us on a higher cognitive level. Its means of communication is more primitive and more powerful, going directly to the “lizard” part of the brain that holds sway over our emotional responses.

But the point here is what Kreisleriana meant to Schumann and what he hoped it would mean to us. It’s music about love, passionate and manic. The wild mood swings in the piece mirror the composer’s daydreaming about finally being with his beloved Clara and his fits of pique over her father trying to keep his daughter and her young suitor apart.

Fantasiestücke, op. 12, preceded Kreisleriana, but only by a matter of a few months. Composed in 1837, it too originally drew inspiration from a short story by E. T. A. Hoffmann that appeared in the same collection of the author’s novellas in which Kreisleriana was published.

Like its Kreisleriana companion, Schumann’s op. 12—with the musical content and contrasts of its eight numbers and the poetic titles he gave them—also expresses his fever fantasies about Clara and his impatience at not being with her. The layout, however, of op. 12 is a bit different. The eight pieces are divided into two books of four numbers each. Schumann omitted a planned ninth piece, originally intended for the Fantasiestücke, from the final draft. It’s untitled and wasn’t published until 1935, when it was logged in the composer’s catalog as RSW:op12:Anh (H/K WoO 28).

Schliessmann does not play the orphaned piece, but he does do something interesting. At the end of disc two, he repeats the first number of op. 12, Des Abends. The pianist explains in a paragraph of the album note that “the recording features two different interpretations of some works, such as the Arabeske and Des Abends from the Fantasiestücke, op.12, by exchanging the keyboards. This demonstrated the influence of the instrument and acoustics on interpretation. The second SACD includes a unique rendition of Des Abends, creating a transition to the darkness of the Nachtstücke, op. 23, introducing the late pieces by Schumann.”

Stepping back another year to 1836, we come to the Fantasie in C, op. 17, the most ambitious and largest in scope of the composer’s clutch of early fantasy works for solo piano. This is regarded, and arguably so, as Schumann’s greatest work for the instrument. As works of this genre go, however, it seems to have lost its original motivation as yet another expression of the composer’s loins longing for Clara when work on the composition became entangled in a project to raise funds for a memorial statue of Beethoven to be erected in Bonn. Schumann’s contribution to the enterprise would be the money to come from the first 100 copies of the Fantasie sold.

But it didn’t work out quite as planned. Schumann’s Fantasie was so...well...fantastical and so difficult that no publisher it was offered to would touch it. Schumann finally dedicated the finished work to Liszt, Breitkopf & Härtel took a risk on it, and the rest is history. As noted earlier, this is the one work duplicated in full between Schliessmann’s earlier “live” recording and this one, so, further on, it will be interesting to compare the two performances.

Now, Kreisleriana, the Fantasiestücke, and the Fantasie in C are three of the “biggies” among Schumann’s early fantasy-type works. Schliessmann of course, does not include all of the composer’s works in the genre. Missing from this compilation are works as such Carnaval (1834–35), Kinderszenen (1838), Novelletten (1838), Faschingsschwank aus Wien (1839), and Waldszenen (1848–49), to name five. It all goes back, of course, to how one defines or categorizes “fantasy.” However, there are other works to choose from, some not as often heard, and from among them, the pianist gives us Arabeske, op. 18 (1839), Nachtstücke, op. 23 (1839), 3 Fantasy Pieces, op. 111 (1851), and Gesänge der Frühe, op. 133 (1853).

In the category of 19th century fantasy, and especially in the works of Schumann, lines blur. “Fantasy” encompasses and is encompassed by a number of related genres: character pieces, tone paintings, mood enhancers, and even compositions with no extra-musical intent, designed solely for the purpose of virtuosic display and technical one-upmanship. An example of the latter is Schumann’s Toccata in C, op. 7 (1830, revised 1833), still regarded to this day as “one of the most ferociously difficult pieces in the piano repertoire” [Richard E. Rodda].

As noted earlier, there is a duplication between the earlier “live” recording version of the Fantasie in C, op. 17, and this new studio recording of the piece. In execution, interpretation, and timings, Schliessmann’s readings of the first two movements are uncannily similar. Only in the concluding movement, does one hear a significant variance. Here the pianist is more mindful of Schumann’s langsam getragen (borne more slowly).

Live version: 12:45 8:09 8:18
New version: 12:50 8:11 9:03

There is, however, another difference which, to my ear, seems to cast a more nuanced textural and coloristic effect on the music in the new performance, one which goes beyond the more elaborate recording setup employed for the studio recording. That difference, I think, relates to the instruments used. For the earlier “live” performance, Schliessmann played a Fazioli F278 concert grand. For the current studio performance, he played a Steinway D274 concert grand. In past reviews, I’ve been very impressed by the sound of Fazioli pianos, but in this case, it’s the Steinway that seems to lend greater clarity or precision to Schumann’s unique keyboard manner and to give stronger expression to his flights of fantasy.

Mentioned earlier, too, was that for the Arabeske and the repeat of Des Abends from the Fantasiestücke, Burkard exchanges keyboards. On first reading that, I thought it an odd way to say that he switched to a different piano. But a deeper dive into the album notes revealed the reason that the word “keyboards” was used here. The keyboards are two but the piano is one, having been fitted with a second keyboard, much like a two-manual harpsichord I imagine. I quote from the note: “There were two different keyboards in use, different in voicing and intonation, provided by a flying case.”

The recording itself, it should be noted, is very high-tech, above and beyond most high-tech, state-of-the-art SACD recordings. Fourteen microphones were employed to capture Schliessmann in Dolby Atmos, “a revolutionary spatial audio technology for the most immersive sound experience.”

Burkard’s pianism is, as always, a thing of beauty to behold, at once limpid and limned, while always equally as constant in attention to the demands and details of the score as to the emotions and expressive gestures the written notes imply. The fusion of technical mastery and musical insight to this degree combine to produce artistry of the highest caliber.

In my experience, Burkard Schliessmann’s Schumann may be equaled by two or three pianists past—Richter, Horowitz, and especially Arrau—but he is not surpassed by any of them. Jerry Dubins


Five stars: A most important addition to the Schumman solo piano discography