The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: During “Schumann Week” at NPR’s “Deceptive Cadence” blog, American pianist Jonathan Biss excelled in exploring and explaining the music and life of the prototypical Romantic composer.

October 21, 2012
6 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

It’s not as if the music of Robert Schumann (1810-1856) hasn’t found a secure place in the repertoire. His piano music, chamber music, songs and orchestral music are all pretty standard fare and are performed and heard often.

And yet Robert Schumann (below, in a photo from 1850), who started out as a music critic and would-be concert pianist before turning to composing, still remains an enigmatic figure whose personal life and musical compositions offer many mysteries to explore. This is especially true of the role of his mental illness and the quality of his late-life compositions.

Two weeks ago, NPR and its terrific blog “Deceptive Cadence” offered a mini-seminar on Schumann. It used many audio samples, including playing and insightful commentary by the contributor Jonathan Biss (below, in a photo by Jillian Edelstein) and others, including Maurizio Pollini, Sviatoslav Richter, Andras Schiff and Radu Lupu.

The young American pianist has recorded several outstanding CDs for EMI of major solo piano works of Schumann. His latest release is a terrific new recording of Schumann’s upbeat and extroverted Piano Quintet, coupled with Dvorak’s Piano Quintet, with the Elias String Quartet for the Onyx label).

Biss has also just published an outstandingly informative and personally revealing e-book on Schumann called “A Pianist Under the Influence” (below, $1.99 at amazon.com). Biss has also launched a season-long major project and international 30-concert tour — called “Schumann: Under the Influence” — of performing Schumann’s works with other instrumentalists and singers.

Biss also played the piano for NPR, which offers samples on its website.

HERE ARE THE SELECTIONS OR TOPICS OF THE WEEK-LONG EXPLORATION, IN ORDER FROM TOP TO BOTTOM EQUALING FIRST TO LAST. THE EAR LEARNED A LOT ABOUT SCHUMANN AND HOPES YOU DO TOO.

Five Things You Didn’t Know About Schumann, with some audio samples to highlight the discussion:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/09/20/161482421/5-things-you-never-knew-about-schumann

Pianist and Schumann enthusiast Jonathan Biss Shoots Down Schumann Detractors:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/09/26/161810687/jonathan-biss-shooting-down-the-schumann-detractors

How the Schumann’s  (below) – Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck — used an unusual joint written Journal more than conversation to communicate:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/09/26/161842022/jonathan-biss-meet-the-schumanns-and-their-cryptic-communications

How Schumann created and furthered a Culture of Musical Nostalgia:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/09/26/161847811/jonathan-biss-schumanns-culture-of-musical-nostalgia

I love Schumann’s sense of bittersweet melody and harmony, his sense of longing and search for belonging, and have many favorite pieces.

But perhaps my most favorite work is the second section of “Kreisleriana,” which is about his longing for Clara before they were married and which was dedicated to Chopin. (Chopin dedicated his Ballade No. 2 to Schumann, and Chopin’s career was launched early by published praise from Schumann, who was writing as a critic.)

Perhaps because I heard it early on, I find the performance by Martha Argerich particularly moving. Here is that movement performed by Argerich. (Biss’ outstanding and beautiful recording of the complete “Kreisleriana,” which runs to more than 33 minutes, is also available on YouTube.):


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