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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Album for the Young Op.68 (arr. string trio by Anssi Karttunen)
Zebra Trio
rec. 2018, Amann Studios, Vienna

This is an intriguing release of Schumann’s Album for the Young, a work often dismissed as being merely pedagogical, which is to neglect some fine music, music which is well beyond a most ardent student. Yes, the first five pieces were composed for and given as a gift to the Schumann’s eldest daughter, Marie, on her birthday, but these only formed the basis of what is a far more serious and challenging work than some might think. With this suite of forty three pieces ranging in complexity and character, with the booklet notes pointing to a link between the Album and the Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake. I have a few versions of the Album on piano, and whilst it is not a regular in my machine, I do enjoy the work when I play it, however, it is the inclusion of 15 pieces from the Album that Graham Johnson uses to punctuate the Lieder-Album für die Jugend Op. 79 on volume 9 of his complete survey of Schumann’s songs for Hyperion (CDJ33109) that makes one of the biggest impacts.

It is clear from the second part of the booklet notes, in which Anssi Karttunen discusses the impetus behind why he transcribed the Album, that this is not his first venture into the art of transcription. He states that he in the past has looked at works and tried to recreate composers’ original conceptions of the work, or even create versions of larger orchestral works which the composer had offered to reduce to meet the call for ‘house music’ performances, one such piece being Schumann’s Cello Concerto, which the composer offered to arrange for home performance, only to have the idea turned down by his publisher. In the case of the Album for the Young however, the concept seems not to have been one on musicological reasons, more he was looking for a short piece to transcribe for a Christmas greeting to his friends of the Zebra Trio, with the opening Melody of the Album seeming to be the ideal piece. What started as a Christmas card grew into the transcription of the complete album that is recorded here for the first time. He seems to have been taken by the dark nature of some of the pieces which are beyond children’s comprehension never mind their abilities, stating that “By the time you get to ‘Winterszeit II (39), you can hear a distant echo of a Mahler symphony, which of course was still far in the future at the time.” But it was this aspect of the music that made him become “obsessed with the Album”, so much so that he needed to transcribe the complete work.

As a transcription, I do feel that this arrangement does work well, and that whilst it is faithful to the original, with the greater musical colour and depth you also get from the strings a new sharper emphasis to the music. The opening Melody comes over as a tender and I imagine much appreciated short piece, a welcome Christmas card. You can certainly see why Karttunen suggests that the music points towards Mahler, but it is not just in number 39 that you get this, for instance the darker sonorities that the strings produce in the previous piece, Winterszeit I, opens up a whole new world of darker more introspective music, one that also points towards Mahler. Whilst in The Horseman (23), the bouncing strings does give a greater feeling of a galloping horse with added excitement and eagerness to the music. The Little Fugue (40) is lovingly handled, with a greater feel for the fugal second theme of this piece, a nod to Schumann’s hero, Bach, perhaps. The chorale elements are heightened in the Figured Chorale (42), this leads well into the tender final piece, Song for New Year’s Eve, which rounds the disc off well. My only problem with this disc is that it led me back to the original piano version, so much so that I have now listened to the recordings of the piano version more times than I have listened to this string trio version, and whilst I have enjoyed this arrangement, I think that when I want to listen to the Album, it will be one of my piano versions, which is what I am listening to at the time of writing, that I return to first.

The performance is excellent throughout, as you would imagine with an arrangement for a specific ensemble, the strengths of the individual members are exploited, which each sharing the limelight at times. This is a well-balanced transcription, something that clearly comes through in the clear and sympathetic recording. The booklet notes, with the extensive essay on the music by Elizabeth Green, as well as those by the arranger, give great insight into the minds of both Schumann and of the arranger Anssi Karttunen, making this an interesting disc.

Stuart Sillitoe


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