Schumann Forum 2010
"On the originality of Schumann, Part 1"
by Wolf-Dieter Seiffert
There is a concert that ranks among my personal richest experiences of the last several years. It was a Schumann matinee given by pianist András Schiff in the excellent and lovely “Reitstadl” in Neumarkt, Bavaria in January 2009. The concert was recorded and will be published on CD by ECM (planned for the beginning of 2011). It was my honour and my pleasure to talk to this exceptional musician about Schumann, and I did this exclusively for you, dear readers of the Schumann Forum.
The central issue of our conversation was the question whether there is an unmistakable “Schumann sound” and whether it is at all possible to grasp and describe it. You can listen to excerpts of the conversation here. It was conducted in German. Those among you who do not speak German will be happy to read the summary that I wrote up in German and which has also been translated into English.
Maestro Schiff confirmed the key question whether a specific “Schumann sound” exists:
In an attempt to describe the Schumann sound with words András Schiff then talked about Schumann’s piano settings which he regards as revolutionary and genial. He points out as an essential aspect the unusual textures of the middle parts:
Because Mr Schiff specially remarked on the beginning of the Fantasie in C major op. 17 I am including a link to the Henle Urtext edition (just click on the cover image for more information). In case you missed it at the time, I would also like to point you to the September 15 entry on the Schumann Forum.
Schiff proceeded with insightful comments on Schumann’s efforts to often disguise the metric pulse; he tends to conceal the first downbeat of the bar which is so peculiar to his compositions:
Schiff revealed another unfailing characteristic of the Schumann sound - his pedal instructions in the piano works:
One observation that we have all made is evident for instance in Schumann’s “Kreisleriana” op. 16: the piece ends very, very quietly in a triple pianissimo. Kapellmeister Kreisler has disappeared from the scene and the audience is a bit at a loss. Has the piece ended? Was this the cue for applause? András Schiff emphasizes this particularity. It is so typical of many of Schumann’s piano works that they simply will not end thunderously with great effect on the audience:
Follow this link to get to the Henle Urtext edition of the “Kreisleriana” (click on the cover image):
Not at all surprisingly András Schiff regards Schumann’s unconventional tempo instructions, the poetical mottoes of many works, the intellectual and literary background of Schumann’s entire oeuvre as extraordinarily important and inspiring. Schumann is tremendously helpful to the pianist in revealing his intentions in written words that can be read and followed:
Finally, we came to speak on Schumann’s late works which András Schiff very much reveres, but other pianists avoid like a curse. Why so?
Mr Schiff uses two examples for Schumann’s late works: “Gesänge der Frühe” and “Variations on a Theme in E flat major” (the so-called “Ghost Variations”). Please follow this link for further reading (click on the cover image):
At the end of our conversation Maestro Schiff returned to the special value of the first versions of Schumann’s piano works that he feels are in some cases better, and even more inspired, than the later versions that Schumann approved. Mr Schiff attributes this continuous desire to improve finished works to Schumann’s emotional instability and his lifelong insecurities.
Already this spring I had published András Schiff’s answers to my nine questions on Chopin and Schumann (1. April), but at this point you will certainly be grateful for the repeated direct access to his interesting answers:
9 Questions for András Schiff (pdf)