SCHUMANN Novelletten. Nachstücke. Romanze
Perceiving series of pieces as inseparable, to be performed from first note to last, is a relatively recent notion, and it might well have surprised Schumann. True, he did speak of the Novelletten as being ‘closely connected’, but it can’t be claimed they’re similar to the numbers of Kreisleriana or the Davidsbündlertänze or Carnaval in demanding to be listened to as cycles of original musical thought, with a power that drives the listener forwards from one number to the next.
For a start, the eight Novelletten make a much longer collection, taking nearly 48 minutes in the performance here. They’re mostly in D major and exultant, even manic in mood, and that also counts against them when played complete – there are no contrasting slower numbers. Marvellous stuff, especially the last one, but calling for stamina not only from the player. For the pianist they’re a really tough call. The bravura writing has to be savoured, and there’s a lot of it, as well as the unremitting rhythmic energy. And many of the pages are to be counted among Schumann’s most inventively complex in their textural detail. Of the eight, only the first and the elaborate last one are often heard; Nos 4 and 5, a waltz and a polonaise respectively, hardly ever. So, lots of discoveries to be made. Danny Driver is commanding and personable. He never fails to establish character and to provide the understanding and flair of a virtuoso in leading us on, in getting from one thing to another. The only qualities I miss are a measure of ease with the continuity and greater differentiation in the sound and movement. There should be room, I think, for some freeing-up in this parade of hyperactivity, and certainly for more acuteness in the projection of differing levels of forte sound. In his unsurpassed recording from way back, Dino Ciani (Brilliant, 6/11) encompassed all this, including the salient feature of No 6, one of Schumann’s inspired pieces of continuous acceleration which Danny Driver misses by beginning it too fast. But he is faultless in his timing of what is perhaps the most inspired moment of all, the recall of a voice ‘as if from afar’ in the final piece – it comes twice, and it’s Clara’s, from a composition of hers. There are personages here and maybe a wedding scene is in progress, but everyone stops to listen; and you hold your breath.
The Nachtstücke are good, if a shade unimaginative in No 1 where the tread of the march seems to me to need subtlety of inflection, in the contrasting episodes particularly. This cycle inhabits a world not just of darkness but of fantasy and make-believe (try Emil Gilels, if you can find him). You may not agree with my final cavil which concerns a Potton Hall recording that is skewed towards the middle and bass registers – not that you miss richness in the treble much because Schumann’s piano music is ‘middly’ anyway and he doesn’t exploit it. But I sense a less than ideal recorded balance nevertheless.