Burkard Schliessmann: recording live and in the studio

Burkard Schliessmann
Friday, November 17, 2023

Burkard Schliessmann introduces his new album, ‘Live & Encores’ – with music by Bach, Mendelssohn, Chopin and Schumann – and looks ahead to an all-Schumann album that will follow next year

It really was a special and inspiring moment when I selected a Fazioli F278 on 6 March 2023: this precise instrument, the F2783482, immediately reached my heart and soul because it enabled me to communicate in works from all periods. It gave the impression of being born anew for each work, with an extraordinary palette of colours, flexibility, clarity, transparency and presence, as well as warmth. I wanted to capture this sound in a recording, and those present – Paolo and Luca Fazioli, Dieter and Sylvia Fischer, Job Wijnands – were thrilled by this idea. Elena Turrin organised three dates in April at the Fazioli Concert Hall when in the presence of invited guests I presented a wide-ranging programme that was recorded ‘live’ by the excellent sound engineer Matteo Costa. This repertoire – captured on my new album ‘Live & Encores’ – consists of works that I have studied since my youth and performed many times. This programme is therefore very personal to me.

I have played Bach more than any other composer; when I was 21 I also played the complete organ works from memory. As a youngster I was taught by one of the last master-students of the legendary Helmut Walcha, which gave me an insight into the music and internal structures of Bach – the method of achieving both independence and coherence in all the music’s voices gave me a special appreciation of Bach and his philosophy. Bach really cannot be understood and interpreted from an isolated point; his music needs to be explored as part of something larger – as an aspect of human realism.

The Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue is one of my favourite works of Bach. The uniqueness of the Fantasia rests on its exuberant chromaticisms, which convey a feeling of infinity through the extensive use of enharmonic change, to say nothing of all the suspensions and passing notes. It induces a state of weightlessness in the listener. No less important is the immediacy of the music’s expressive language. The chromatic modulations invoke the religiously inspired rhetoric of grief and mourning that brings the same sense of calm resignation that one finds in certain works of Liszt. The anguished chromaticisms also create an erotic tension that invites comparisons with the harmonies of Wagner’s Tristan, with an expressiveness and intimacy that is mysterious and almost metaphysical.

In the 19th century, the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue was a central work of the Bach revival. Felix Mendelssohn, who played a key role in this revival, performed the Fantasia in the Leipzig Gewandhaus in February 1840 and January 1841, firing his audience with tremendous enthusiasm. He himself attributed the impact of his performance to his free interpretation of the arpeggios in the Fantasia and to his ability to exploit the effects of one of the grand pianos of the time, using differentiated dynamics, picking out the top notes, with liberal use of the sustaining pedal and bass-note doublings. This became the model for the Adagio second movement of Mendelssohn’s Cello Sonata No 2, Op 58 (1841-43), in which the top notes of the arpeggio in the piano spell out a chorale melody while the cello plays an extended recitative that recalls Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia, even quoting the final bars.

Chopin’s music is the crowning glory of the piano repertoire. In its emotionalism and musical architecture, the presence of past giants is evident, yet to convey the authentic style of this music takes experience. The question of rubato is very sensitive: it must not be arbitrary but well calculated and proportioned, and integrated into Chopin’s essentially classical forms, which built on his profound knowledge of the polyphonic and contrapuntal structures of Bach and Mozart.

Chopin’s music is stylistically complete separate from Schumann’s. Schumann admired Chopin and saw him as friend, but Chopin himself had much less interest in and esteem for Schumann. While Schumann’s creative path led him towards the freedom of subjective self-expression, Chopin by contrast wrote in classical forms. His music needs no external points of reference. Both composers held Bach in the highest esteem and were inspired by him throughout their lives, and for Chopin – unlike many of his contemporaries – Bach’s mastery of logic and musical construction inspired works that balance Romantic expression with Classical structure. For me, Chopin embodies a tension between the Baroque, Classical and Romantic eras and strives for a connection between improvisational freedom, formal structure and rapturous Romanticism.

Mendelssohn was central to the 19th-century rediscovery of Bach. Following Bach’s death in 1750, much of his music was forgotten. When Mendelssohn performed the St Matthew Passion in Berlin on 11 March 1829 it was the first time it had been heard for 100 years, and this performance – a second was given in Leipzig in 1841 – heralded a Renaissance of Bach’s music. Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses, Op 54, from 1842 is one of his masterpieces in terms of inner unity, masterfully demonstrating a range of piano technique in a compressed form. Each variation builds on the preceding one, anticipating Arnold Schoenberg’s idea of the ‘developing variation’.

When I play live, as on this recording, I aim to communicate in the moment with my audience. I don’t only play for them, I want to give back to them. I feel the intensity of hearing, of listening, and this electricity is something I want to give back to the audience. It’s very stimulating.

* * *

Later in 2023, between 28 August and 2 September, I recorded a Schumann album called ‘Fantasies’ in the renowned Teldex Studios in Berlin. This aim of this production is completely different: while ‘Live & Encores’ captures the immediacy of a specific moment in a mix of repertoire, this studio album concentrates exclusively on Robert Schumann.

Stylistically, Schumann’s piano works belong to a transitional period inspired by Bach’s polyphony and conditioned by the successors and imitators of Viennese Classicism and Beethoven. The challenge of finding adequate musical and intellectual substance to fill a large-scale form was one that Schumann never fulfilled better than in his C major Fantasie, Op 17; indeed, in the field of piano music, he never again equalled this achievement. This work occupies a special place in Schumann’s output – and for me it is a reflection of my own personality. It is perhaps the boldest and most uninhibited work he ever wrote, and it harks back to a freer and more improvisatory conception of sonata form anticipated by Beethoven.

Schumann himself described the Fantasie’s opening movement as the most passionate of all his works. This is significant, and the circumstances of the work’s genesis should not be overlooked, especially by the performer. There is no question of sentimentality about it. The world of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde is foreshadowed in the first movement of Schumann’s Fantasie. In the development section the theme starts as if heard from far off, and first occurs in the dominant minor before appearing more decisively in the home key of C major. The music reaches a fff climax on an unresolved suspended chord that is identical with the famous ‘Tristan chord’ whose accented A flat is still present in the C minor of the soothing ‘postlude'. With the second reprise of the main theme we encounter Schumann’s most audacious inspiration, an interrupted cadence suspended harmonically over three bars. Various critics have insisted that the first movement dominates the other two, but in fact the rhythmic and technical extremes of the second movement, and the variety of tonal colour of the third, are what ensure the strength and coherence of the work as a whole.

I played the Fantasie twice, both live (on ‘Live & Encores’ recorded in March) and in the studio (on ‘Fantasies’ recorded in August) and the difference of interpretation is extraordinary. This can be seen above all in the third movement, where my playing responds to the acoustics of the Teldex Studio, and also to the different instruments: whereas on ‘Live & Encores’ I had the ‘big line’ in mind and thus followed a relatively brisk tempo, in ‘Fantasies’ I aimed to give the inner voices and harmonies the utmost poetry, requiring a much slower tempo. If you compare these recordings you begin to understand the complexity of interpretation, and how this can vary in different circumstances.

To illustrate this challenge, I had an outstanding Steinway with two keyboards that could be changed and which individually provided a different voicing, sound and intonation. The first had a bright, brilliant sound, the second a dark, warm sound. My producer Julian Schwenkner did an outstanding job. ‘Fantasies’ will be released on 7.1.4. Dolby Atmos, we used 14 microphones, installed by recording engineer Jupp Wegner, a specialist for Dolby Atmos. 

During this recording I worked as if I were in a trance: it was as if I merged with the great acoustics of the Teldex Studio and the unique instrument to take Schumann to a special level, from his early works up to the Gesänge der Frühe, Op 133. The instrument also inspired me (and challenged all of us) to create two completely different interpretations of certain works – the Arabeske and ‘Des Abends’ from the Fantasiestücke, Op 12 – by switching the keyboards. This likewise showed the variety of interpretational possibilities depending on the instrument and acoustics. In the end, we produced three SACDs. A special feature is the second SACD with the Fantasiestücke, Op 12, the alternative interpretation of the Arabeske using the second keyboard with its darker and warmer sound, and at the end – as if closing a circle – a completely different interpretation of ‘Des Abends’, almost like a transition to the darkness of the Nachtstücke, Op 23, with which the third SACD begins by way of introduction to Schumann’s late pieces. This album is scheduled to be released in March.

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