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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Arabeske, Opus 18 (1838/9) [6:15]
Konzert ohne Orchester, Opus 14 (1836) [23:15]
Blumenstück, Opus 19 (1838/9) [7:25]
Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Opus 26 (1839) [21:17]
Scherzo – originally part of the above Konzert ohne orchester (1835/6) [3:08]
Christopher Park (piano)
rec. 2018, Festeburgkirche, Frankfurt, Germany

Born in Bamberg, Christopher Park is of German-Korean descent. He has previously recorded discs of Schumann, Stravinsky and Neuwirth, a Liszt album, the Beethoven cello sonatas and Russian transcriptions. This selection of Schumann pieces is a combination of the familiar and the seldom performed. Park plays the Arabeske sensitively, though I do find his rubato annoying. The effect is rather over-phrased and micro-managed, where a more natural, flowing approach would, I feel, be more rewarding. Turning – quite randomly - to Wilhelm Kempff (Philips – Great Pianists of the 20th Century), I find more buoyancy, spontaneity and a greater dynamic range – and yes, his rubato is more convincing, more organic. To make a sweeping generalisation, I would suggest that the most satisfying kind of rubato is subtler than that which Christopher Park favours here. However, for all we know, Clara may have performed the piece with an equal or similar rubato and Schumann may have loved it, but for me it is a relief when this music returns – now presented more simply – after the first episode. Incidentally, I would love to know how Clara played this and other works by Robert. As she outlived him by forty years, her pupils, or their pupils in turn, may well have studied with her in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century and left some written record. Any information would be very welcome.

Park does possess, in spite of my reservations, many of the qualities necessary for Schumann. He has the poetry, dreaminess and mercurial character, and never makes an ugly sound. In the ridiculously misnamed Konzert ohne Orchester (or Concert sans orchestre, as it was originally entitled by the publishers) Park shows more obviously his Schumann credentials. This rarely performed work, later revised as the Third Piano Sonata in F minor, Opus 14 – and it is far more of a sonata than a concerto - is a welcome choice. Again there are moments when rubato is applied a little too knowingly but generally Park achieves a good balance between lyricism and turbulence. This may not be familiar Schumann but it is essential listening. It inclines strongly towards the monothematic, the melody of the slow movement (Andantino de Clara Wieck) providing the basis of not merely the following variations but much of the work. At the very beginning of the piece Schumann strongly affirms this “Clara theme”. Here, for more fire, passion and abandon, I would turn to Jörg Demus (Nuovo Era – Schumann's complete piano works), whereas Park, though impressive, seems to hold something back. With Demus – my choice of comparison is here not so random, as I have only two or three other recordings – the music really takes wing. The same reservation applies to Park's performance of the finale (Prestissimo possibile). As in the Arabeske, I sense that Park is thinking: “Where shall I use a little rubato?” He is more deliberate, sometimes heavy, Demus is risky and impetuous. For those who would guess that this work is neglected for good reasons, I simply have to quote Andras Schiff: “Why this work is the least played of all his sonatas blows my mind. Like all his works, it's a desperate piece with a lot of autobiographical elements in it. I am shocked by the unbelievable genius of it.” I entirely agree.

The lovely Blumenstück would benefit from greater simplicity and naturalness. Again the little touches of rubato or hesitation seem to me distracting rather than enhancing and not conducive to buoyancy.

The Faschingsschwank aus Wien, which Schumann described as “a great romantic sonata”, is fine, though ideally (at risk of repetition) I would like more abandon. Published separately after Schumann's death, the brief Scherzo which ends the CD is the first of the pair included in the 5-movement, 1835-6 version of the Konzert ohne Orchester.

Park's technique is formidable, so he could afford to let go more than he does. Having said that he never makes an ugly sound. I must add that there is a degree of hardness in, for instance, passages of the finale. Nevertheless, the often admirable and characterful playing on this CD makes it preferable to many others but obviously the very greatest Schumann interpreters, ideally capturing the essential ardour and sweep of this composer's inspiration, occupy a different, especially exalted position.

Philip Borg-Wheeler

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