Pianist Schiff plays Schumann refreshingly


Robert Schumann was among those unfortunates for whom genius was closely intertwined with mental illness. And, as his illness tightened its grasp in the last decade of his life, the composer often revised the incendiary piano works he had written almost 20 years earlier. It was an attempt one might call it an act of denial to cover his footprints in the revolutionary path he had cut through the music of the early 19th century.

The original versions of such works as the Fantasy in C Major, the "Symphonic Etudes" and, particularly, the "Davidsbundlertanze" are wilder than the somewhat tamed revisions served up by almost all pianists.

The opportunity to hear one of these revolutionary masterpieces in its original form was one of the reasons Andras Schiff's all-Schumann recital at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Wednesday evening was so refreshing.

Schiff performed the "Davidsbundlertanze" in the 1837 version, not the longer, more predictable 1850 revision. The piece emerged with all the composer's manic whimsy intact, veering wildly between Eusebius and Florestan, Schumann's names for the dreamily introspective and explosively extroverted states he considered the two sides of his character.

If hearing the music in its original form was something of a revelation, so was Schiff's playing. The Hungarian-born pianist, 43, eschewed the plushly upholstered sound usually heard in Schumann. This was not a superficially beautiful "Davidsbundlertanze"; harmonic progressions rang out with unusual clarity, boldly revealing the music's sinews, bones and muscles.

Rarely has the case for Schumann's architecture been made so powerfully. Without the obfuscating haze of pianistic glamour, the listener was able to penetrate the music's aching sadnesses and flights of sustained lyricism.

Schiff, of course, could not have so encompassed the music's drama and capriciousness without also being a great pianist. Some of the features of the performance Schiff's skill in managing the composer's spontaneous tempo changes, for example, or the way he made the exquisitely soft coda so unexpected and so beautiful took one's breath away.

If the pianist was less convincing in a somewhat affected performance of the program-opening "Arabeske," his performance of another of Schumann's poetic miniatures, the "Blumenstuck," which came after intermission, was lyrical and carefully shaded.

The "Blumenstuck" preceded the "Symphonic Etudes," which Schiff chose to play in its 1852 re-working instead of the 1834-1837 original. Much of this performance was beautiful; the prestissimo chordal variation, taken at a tempo that made no concession to its hazards, emerged brilliantly; inner voices were pointed up without sounding mannered; and the lengthy, forearm-breaking finale betrayed no hint of fatigue.

But this is a piece that demands, as the "Davidsbundlertanze" does not, a sense of sonorous grandeur and that may be the one thing absent from Schiff's otherwise remarkable musical and pianistic armory.

Pub Date: 3/23/96

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