SCHUMANN Complete Violin Sonatas
Anyone familiar with Christian Tetzlaff’s Gramophone Award-winning recording of Schumann’s piano trios (EMI, 7/11) will not be surprised to hear that this is every bit as compelling. There’s been a change of incumbent on the piano stool, with Leif Ove Andsnes now replaced by Lars Vogt, but the results are every bit as revelatory and I’d be surprised if it’s not a strong contender in the 2014 Awards.
These three sonatas have, historically, tended to be lumped together with other late works under the ‘composer’s failing powers’ umbrella. More and more that crass pigeonholing is being called into question and it’s performances such as these that are doing that. So is there any justification in the notion that this is not top-drawer Schumann? In the case of the first two sonatas, I’d say absolutely not. In fact, not only do they abound in vivacity and emotional power but structurally they are tautly written and innovative in their thinking. And Tetzlaff, more than any other violinist around today, is utterly attuned to Schumann’s idiom in these later works: the mercurial changes of mood are conveyed as if they’re the most natural thing in the world, with none of the clumpy over-accentuation or exaggeration that can give Schumann’s sometimes obsessive rhythms a bad name. Yet neither is the drama ever underplayed. Quite the reverse, in fact: all three pieces were written at white heat (even by Schumann’s standards) and that energy of the creative process is truly brought to life here.
If the Third Sonata remains more of an issue than the other two, its reputation has perhaps as much to do with its unorthodox history than the actual notes on the page. Its slow movement and finale started out life as part of a composite F-A-E Sonata written for the great Joseph Joachim, with the other contributions coming from Brahms and Albert Dietrich. Schumann very shortly after added two more movements to this sonata, to which Joachim responded enthusiastically and which Clara Schumann got as far as rehearsing with Wilhelm Joseph von Wasielewski, the violinist who’d given the private premieres of the First and Second Sonatas. Despite the apparent approval of both Schumann’s wife and friend, the two of them prevented the publication of the piece and it had to wait until a century after the composer’s death to make it – finally – into print.
What’s special about the reading from Tetzlaff and Vogt is that they’ve truly considered it in the light of the Second Sonata, in which Schumann’s metronome markings indicate that apparently lively tempi are actually not that fast. They make an utterly convincing and absorbing case for it, embracing the drama of the deeply unnerving opening movement, imbuing it with real rhetorical power, while in the finale Vogt makes the filigree piano-writing sound effortless – which is no mean achievement.
Their understanding not just of the innovative qualities of these pieces but also Schumann’s borrowing from the past to create something new is another pleasure. And by past, I mean Bach in particular. The Second Sonata is suffused with the spirit and sometimes the letter of the elder composer, not only in the Ziemlich langsam introduction but also in the sublime slow movement, which is a set of variations based on a chorale that Bach used in a Christmas cantata, No 91, and which Mendelssohn also quotes in the finale of his C minor Piano Trio, written just a handful of years before this work. Tetzlaff’s own understanding of Bach is a significant factor (just recall that glorious set of the Sonatas and Partitas he recorded a few years back – Hänssler, 8/07) and the first variation, now bowed, with a trickling piano accompaniment, has you holding your breath with wonder at the delicacy and apparent simplicity of it all. In the Allegretto middle movement of the First Sonata, the players superbly convey the fragility of the writing, the fleeting hints of happiness all too easily overcome by a doleful sadness.
But it’s not just in the more delicate moments that these players impress so much. The effect of the opening of the first movement of No 1 is of a spontaneously wrought nervosity but listen a little more closely and you become aware of the myriad colours and subtle phrasing at play here. And in the Second Sonata, the reiterated rhythms of the second movement are high-octane but they also have a sense of yearning, as if reaching out for something not quite graspable.