I only recently received the Brilliant Classics 13-CD box of the Complete Solo Piano Works of Robert Schumann. It arrived a bit late for the bicentennial celebration of the composer’s birth; but I have always felt that, where Schumann’s music is concerned, there is no such thing as “too late.” (I have found at least one person who agrees with me: Paul Hersh will be presenting another one of his all-Schumann recitals at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music at the end of this month.) Besides, I have always been an advocate for these Gesamtwerk projects by Brilliant Classics (even when they are limited to a single genre), because they inevitably provide opportunities for discovery.
Schumann was rather prolific in composing for the piano. I printed out the “Keyboard” section of the list of his works at Grove Music Online; and it ran to a little more than five pages (including works for multiple hands at multiple pianos, an instrument with a pedal keyboard, and a harmonium, but not including the Opus 54 piano concerto in A minor). Dover’s release of Schumann’s solo piano music in editions edited by Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms runs to three volumes. It is therefore worth asking how well Brilliant lived up to its “complete” claim.
With only a few exceptions the answer is that this release did a pretty good job. The only really questionable issue would be that of the Opus 14 “Concert sans orchestra” in F minor. This originally consisted of five movements, only three of which were published in 1836. It was then published again in 1853 with the scherzo movement restored, and this is the version in Clara’s edition printed by Dover. The Brilliant recording, on the other hand, sticks to the 1836 version. However, where the Opus 22 G minor sonata is concerned, it provides both the revised version with a new finale published in 1839 and the Presto passionato, the final movement that was eventually replaced. Also, perhaps in the interest of providing relatively full CDs, the Opus 54 concerto is included in the collection.
Brilliant Classics is basically a “reprint” organization (not unlike Dover for printed scores). So it is not surprising that these CDs are distributed over a series of recording sessions by six different pianists: Klára Würtz, Peter Frankl, Wolfram Schmitt-Leonardy, Ronald Brautigam, Luba Edlina, and Mariana Izman. Because the discs are organized by recording sessions, it is not always easy to find a specific composition in the collection. The CD-ROM included in the box does not help, since it does not provide a general index (and the discussion it does provide does little justice to either the music or its composer). Ultimately, I provided my own index based on the Grove listing (since I had already printed it).
The performances themselves are, for the most part, much more than acceptable. The different pianists have differing approaches to dealing with Schumann’s rather erratic rhetorical style, but each approach contributes to our understanding of the relationship between his music and his personality. I would only take issue with Schmitt-Leonardy’s decision to take the published version of the Opus 13 “Symphonische Etüden” and then insert the five variations published posthumously in what he felt were “appropriate” locations. This amounts to rejecting the proposition that Schumann had conceived of the version he published as having its own well-integrated architecture; and my personal feeling is to maintain that proposition as valid. Other pianists, such as Jörg Demus, chose to record this piece as Schumann published it and then, for the sake of completeness, included the other variations on separate tracks after the Finale. However, in an age in which we can create our own playlists following our own ordering decisions, it is easy enough to reject Schmitt-Leonardy’s approach to recording without rejecting the CD!