Last month’s CD release of piano performances by Alexander Lonquich under the ECM New Series rubric is a reminder that, more than 200 years since his birth, Robert Schumann is one nineteenth-century composer who can still hold his own in the company of today’s modernists. This is not the first time that producer Manfred Eicher has made this case for Schumann, the most notable probably being the Hommage à R. Sch. album, released in 1995, on which violist Kim Kashkashian, pianist Robert Levin, and clarinetist Eduard Brunner assembled an integrated program giving equal time to György Kurtág and Schumann. This new CD also presents Schumann in “equal time” with a modernist; but this time the contemporary composer is the slightly younger Heinz Holliger. The program itself couples a performance of the first edition of Schumann’s Opus 16 “Kreisleriana” (dedicated to his contemporary, Frédéric Chopin) with a solo piano partita that Holliger composed in 1999 and dedicated to his contemporary, András Schiff.
As had been the case with the Kurtág project, there are any number of connections beneath those on the surface. Johannes Kreisler, the fictional creation of E. T. A. Hoffmann behind Opus 16, appears both explicitly and implicitly in the movements of Kurtág’s homage composition. Also, like Kurtág, Holliger plays games with the “Sch.” abbreviation, which may be applied to both Schumann (through a reference to the enigmatic sustained notes of the “Sphinxes” in the Opus 9 Carnaval, which signify more through their letter names than as pitches) and Schiff, who has to play the two “Sphynxen” movements of the partita inside the piano, rather than at the keyboard. Furthermore, just as Kurtág’s homage must also contend with the presences of Guillaume de Machaut and Gustav Mahler, Holliger’s partita is haunted by both Johann Sebastian Bach (beginning with a prelude and fugue) and Franz Liszt, most obviously in the appropriation of the title “Csárdás obstiné,” one of Liszt’s last solo piano compositions.
Nevertheless, Holliger seems less interested than Kurtág in playing cryptic games. Rather, his partita is a modernist impression of forms from the past, following Arnold Schoenberg’s efforts to establish such forms to orient his emancipation of dissonances. Holliger is similarly interested in such emancipation, but he seems to prefer the freer approach taken by composers such as Paul Hindemith to Schoenberg’s serial disciplines. The results are invigorating and sometimes shocking. Indeed, Lonquich gives such an effective account of Holliger’s intensity that his Schumann comes off as almost too disciplined, if not downright tame, rather a far cry from Hoffmann’s conception of Kreisler as an “insane musician,” let alone the conflicts of Schumann’s own bipolar nature. This does not seem to have been a product of the decision to go with the first edition of 1838, rather than the revision of 1849. It is just the matter that Schumann should have been approached with the same abandon that served Lonquich so well in his execution of the Holliger partita.