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ECM New Series releases another innovative exploratory approach to Schumann

Heinz Holliger, Anita Leuzinger, and Anton Kernjak
Heinz Holliger, Anita Leuzinger, and Anton Kernjak
by Barbara Golan, courtesy of ECM, from Amazon.com

One of the particularly interesting aspects of Executive Producer Manfred Eicher's approach to the ECM New Series releases is how he has used those recordings to provide new perspectives on music from a more distant past. Many composers have benefited from this perspective, but I have been particularly struck by Eicher's great interest in performers who seem to have strong personal attachment to the music of Robert Schumann. Perhaps the most notable of these has been the pianist András Schiff, who recorded a 2-CD album released in October of 2011, which involved some fascinating scholarship into the origins of the Opus 17 fantasy in C major. Earlier that same year, after the release of a recording by another pianist, Alexander Lonquich, in March, I wrote a piece entitled “Schumann the modernist,” which explored parallels on the album between the Opus 16 “Kreisleriana” and a solo piano partita composed by Heinz Holliger (which happened to be dedicated to Schiff).

However, my own humble opinion is that the most interesting Schumann project to come out of ECM dates back to 1995 with the release of Hommage à R. Sch. The title of this album is also the title of an engagingly enigmatic composition by György Kurtág for piano, viola, and clarinet (the last doubling on bass drum for the “last word” of the composition). The album offers an almost measured-out equal balance of Schumann and Kurtág; but I have to confess to a strong personal interest in the title piece, having listened to it performed many times by students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, including once in a master class led by Kim Kashkashian, the violist on the ECM recording.

The latest Schumann recording from ECM was released this past June and it again involves a “Holliger connection.” Once again the album involves coupling Schumann’s music with Holliger’s. This time, however, the Holliger piece, “Romancendres,” is based on more explicit references to Schumann. It is also the title composition of the album, whose title is the German translation of this compound noun, “Aschenmusik” (music from the ashes).

“Romancendres” is scored for cello (Anita Leuzinger) and piano (Anton Kernjak). It is in four movements framed by opening and closing sections, both entitled “Kondukt” (cortege), which casts the entire piece in funereal connotations. However, the ashes in the title have a double meaning. They refer not only to Schumann, thus establishing the piece as a memorial to the composer, but also to a set of cello pieces (called “romances”) that Clara Schumann composed in 1853 but then burned on the advice of Johannes Brahms.

Like Kurtág’s “Hommage,” this is music that abounds with cross-references, not only in musical quotation and allusions but also in the texts for the movements. Thus, the opening “Kondukt” bears the subtitle “C. S. – R. S.,” establishing from the beginning that the music is as much about Clara’s efforts as a composer as about Robert’s. Then there is the cryptic title of the second movement, “R(asche)S Flügelschlagen” (rapid beating of wings), with the emphasis on Robert’s initials. Nevertheless, in the midst of all of these puzzles, there resides a score with no shortage of highly expressive (not to mention haunting) sonorities. One may not “get” the entire composition on “first contact;” but, like Kurtág’s “Hommage,” the music grows on the attentive listener with subsequent exposure. Once again, ECM has created a truly modernist perspective of Schumann that makes for a thoroughly satisfying listening experience.

The album also features four of Schumann’s compositions, one of which is his only piece for solo oboe. “Romancendres” is preceded by Schumann’s Opus 94, three pieces for oboe and piano that he called (guess what?) “romances.” This allows Holliger to serve “double duty” on this album, performing the solo oboe part with Kernjak. He also contributes to two arrangements of Schumann’s work. The first of these is the Opus 56, which Schumann entitled Etuden in kanonischer Form für Orgel oder Pedalklavier (studies in the form of canons for organ or pedal piano). These are performed by all three of the album’s musicians with Holliger playing oboe d’amore. He also uses this instrument in a duo with Kernjak to perform Schumann’s contribution to the “F-A-E Sonata.” This was a joint project for a gift to the violinist Joseph Joachim, titled for his personal motto, which was “frei aber einsam” (free but lonely). The second and third movements were composed, respectively, by Schumann and Brahms, while the first and last movements were by Schumann’s pupil Albert Dietrich. Finally, the album concludes with Leuzinger playing an arrangement of Schumann’s first violin sonata, Opus 105 in A minor.

The entire album is arranged with Holliger’s piece in the middle, both preceded and followed by two Schumann compositions. In this context the “F-A-E” Intermezzo movement offers a rather comforting relief following the bleakness of Holliger’s concluding “Kondukt.” The opening and closing works (the canonic studies and the violin sonata), on the other hand, provide examples (not often performed in concert) of Schumann’s intellect at its sharpest. The entirety is thus an absorbing study of not only Schumann’s work but also the ways in which it continues to reverberate in the present day.