If you love your Schumann, this is a disc you simply have to own. To have two such wonderful and diverse works played in this superb fashion by Mitsuko Uchida, with sound to match, is a rare treat. DECCA, it seems, knows this full well, and has packaged this as a deluxe Prestige edition, complete with a fascinating interview with the pianist, explaining why she chose to record these particular works and what they mean to her.
Davidsbϋndlertänze is the less familiar work here, and a far more intimate and personal one, but it rates highest of all Schumann's works in Uchida's estimation. The original manuscript purports to be written by Florestan and Eusebius – Schumann's two alter egos, and movements are marked as being written by one or the other or both together, in competition with each other. The work comprises two books of nine short movements each, and unusually, it appears to have ended, fully resolved after the eighth movement of book two. But a simple waltz, signaling the victory of Eusebius, caps the work on a gentle note. The work is tremendously demanding, with huge leaps and many parts lying very awkwardly for the hands. But these are the least of the worries the pianist must face, for emotionally the work is difficult to fathom and once fathomed, to communicate to an audience.
Uchida has the full measure of this work's technical and emotional complexities, and moves freely between the two protagonists. The energy is raw, big-boned, headstrong but also fully poetic by turns. The sense of struggle is always there until the final resolution. This performance must stand in the first rank.
The C Major Fantasie is a work that draws its inspiration from late Beethoven and also from Schubert, sometimes even in direct quotation. It is a much larger-scale, extroverted and more popular work than its discmate. It tends to draw the very best out of pianists, offering them the opportunity to sweep all before them. Uchida is in superb form, fully up to the virtuoso demands, bold and impetuous. I have an autographed copy of the CD [BMG 09026-68262-2] Kissin made of this work which I bought after he played it in Toronto. He was amazing on that night, but on the CD he wilfully distorts the flow by breaking up particular chords in a way that simply does not bear repeated listening. The first two movements now leave me unmoved, although he is magnificent and poetic in the third movement. The sound is lean and lacking in the beautiful sonority of Uchida's piano. Much stiffer competition comes from Pollini's much-loved pairing of the Fantasie with the Sonata Opus 11 [DG LP2530379]. The 1973 sound is shallow by today's best standards, but Pollini's performance is a distillation of much study and phenomenal attention to detail, aided by a technique that is second to none. Of particular note is how well the various episodes emerge effortlessly as part of the coherent whole, and the attention given to the intensity and duration of each note. The playing is simply perfect, but Uchida is so much more alive and dynamic in her performance that even Pollini must take a back seat.
Decca's production team (Niall O'Rourke, Everett Porter, Sebastian Stein, Joanne Baines) and piano technician Georges Ammann have done us a great service by preserving the full dynamics and instrumental color of her performances, which were recorded in the wonderful acoustics of the Snape, Maltings between May 24- 28, 2010. The treble is beautifully projected, the midrange carries its full weight, and the extended bass captures the full bass weight missing in many recordings, while maintaining full clarity and tonal beauty.
Schumann is a composer I prefer to hear in live performance, since it often seems to me a highwire act, pulling all the emotional levers and improvisatory in nature when done best. I relish particular memories of Horowitz and Richter. Occasionally a recorded performance, such as Lipatti's Piano Concerto [Arkadia 78573] or Horowitz's Fantasiestücke [LP RCA ARLI-3775], burns incandescently and causes me to return often to a Schumann recording. Here is another disc certain to attain that same distinction.