Robert Schumann's Davidsbündlertänze was composed in 1837 and conceived on a number of levels. The work is a representation of the Davidsbünd, Schumann's imaginary and spiritual brotherhood of artists who combat the shallow nature of the contemporary culture. The eighteen pieces are also dances and outpourings of Schumann's strong love for Clara. As he confided to her, "The story is an entire Polterabend"; this translates ito a wedding-eve party where old crockery is broken to signify good luck in the future.
Lastly, the work is a self-portrait provided by Schumann of his "varied states of mind" highlighted by the contrasts represented by Florestan and Eusebius. Initially, Schumann had indicated the pieces which corresponded to each author, but he later excised these references. Movements 3, 4, 6, 10, and 12 are the Florestan pieces, while the Eusebius pieces are movements 2, 5, 7, 11, and 14. In comparison, the Florestan pieces are faster and more animated; the Eusebius pieces are softer, more cantabile in style, and more expressive.
So, the composer gives us music for dancing, artistic elevation, romantic love and longing, and exploring the recesses and contradictions of one's mind. Davidsbündlertänze offers a wealth of themes which cross among one another as well as some of Schumann's most gorgeous and inspirational music for the piano. Schumann was a master of injecting varied themes into very short musical pieces; just one note would carry contrasting information. Let's get into this wonderfully rich composition and enjoy its many attractions.`
This survey covers the following recordings:
1st Movement - This piece gives us a preview of both Florestan and Eusebius with passages dedicated to each and other passages incorporating both spirits. A great performance can make a full meal of the myriad of contrasts, and that's what Charles Rosen accomplishes. His range of emotional themes and his crisp and exacting presentation of fine detail are at the highest levels. Rosen's reading is a vivid discovery not equaled by the other versions; I especially love how he highlights the coy/shy motifs.
Excellent performances are offered by Ashkenazy, Hough, Pollini, and Kempff. Each is well varied and alive with Schumann's messages. Gieseking's a little lower on the scale with a rough and ready interpretation which perhaps places too little emphasis on Eusebius.
2nd Movement - A subtle urgency with gorgeous motifs makes for one of Schumann's most poignant, uplifting, and lovely piano pieces he ever wrote. Pollini, Kempff, Ashkenazy, Hough, and Rosen are at a very high level as they put some real feeling and projection into the music. I just wish Pollini had slowed down a little; at his quick pace, it's difficult to fully capture the music's poignancy. However, what a stunning soundstage Pollini is given: clear as a bell with the capacity to highlight all Pollini's inflections perfectly.
My nod for the 2nd Movement goes to Walter Gieseking. He's very slow but always well animated and projected. As for urgency and depth of feeling, he can't be beat. Gieseking's inflections are so incisive that I feel I have a life-line into Schumann's psyche.
3rd & 4th Movements - I've combined these for comment since each is primarily a Florestan piece. The 3rd Movement is exuberant and imbued with confidence, while the 4th Movement expresses urgency as Florestan attempts to rally his forces to take sacred ground. If you don't care for that scenario, we can go with Schumann trying to get out of the emotional hole he digs for himself whenever events real or imagined take a negative turn; these events usually revolve around Clara Wieck.
As always with this work, there are dance elements to contend with, and both the 3rd and 4th Movements should carry a vivid and energized dance portrait. Further, Eusebius has various times when he is part of the picture.
Stephen Hough falls a little in these two pieces. Although his 3rd Movement is certainly exuberant and vivacious, there's some dainty playing going on; Florestan definitely frowns on being depicted as dainty. In the 4th Movement, Hough is very fast and doesn't take the time to allow Eusebius sufficient poetry.
The short-changing of Eusebius is a trait also conveyed by Pollini, but he offsets it by delivering a performance of the highest urgency and force. Pollini's 3rd Variation is even better with exuberance and energy to kill for; it's also impressive how he turns into Eusebius so naturally at the conclusion.
Charles Rosen isn't in Pollini's league concerning the 3rd Variation, but his 4th is just as tense and much more nuanced in a delectable confection; Rosen really give Eusebius his due. Although Gieseking and Ashkenazy are also excellent, Kempff surpasses all with an outstanding 3rd Variation. The other five pianists, at best, offer exceptional performances of limited landscapes. Kempff presents a panorama of scenes all tied together by the interchanges between Florestan and Eusebius; that he does this in a 1 1/2 minute piece of music amazes me.
5th Movement - We meet another piece from Eusebius who keeps asking questions about life without answering any of them. The questioning nature of the movement is a must for the performer to get across, and each of our ten pianists well covers that aspect.
Another important aspect of the movement is that it's music to savor, and that takes a little time which Rosen and Pollini don't provide. Phrases to ponder just go by too quickly with these two pianists, although they do fine with the Eusebius questions. My preferred versions come from Gieseking, Kempff, Hough, and Ashkenazy. Their questioning mode is excellent through their inflections, and they make the time to offer us thought-provoking interpretations. Ashkenazy is delicate and dreamy, Kempff's projection and clarity are perfect, and Gieseking asks the most serious questions of the group.
6th Movement - Florestan is galloping off into battle with a vengeance and soon engages in one of his most gruesome conflicts. Gieseking is the fastest and most wild of the group, but his extreme speed actually reduces tension. Rosen could have more animated, and Pollini indulges in some contrived key-banging. With Kempff, Hough, and Ashkenazy, the tension is razor-sharp and leads to monumental upheaval. Concerning Kempff, I am increasingly enamored by the level of detail he offers; it creates great voice interplay and also provides a wonderful look at Schumann's architecture.
Update: Each of these six versions of Davidsbündlertänze is turning out to represent a very rewarding listening experience. Some slowing down by Gieseking in the Florestan pieces and a more comprehensive slowing down by Pollini would be advantageous, but I find little in any of the versions to carp about. Kempff has been my favorite up to this point. His tempos are exceptionally chosen, and he's particularly effective when slower than the norm; Kempff insures strong articulation, enhanced poignancy, and meaningful intervals. His excellence has also been more consistent than from the other pianists. I'd say that the only style he is exhibiting is the one which gets him into Schumann's head each and every time.
7th Movement - We switch to a Eusebius posture with yearnings in the 'reaching out' category. I favor Gieseking's slow reading which is luxuriating while at the same time possessing the most pointed articulation of the six versions. Least appealing is Ashkenazy's performance which has some very weak articulation resulting in a very relaxed performance of limited dimensions and tension.
8th & 9th Movements - Each of short duration, the 8th Movement is a motorized and perpetual journey of power and energy, while the 9th presents a more discreet but thoroughly tension-laden theme.
I fine two versions fully satisfying: Kempff and Pollini. Kempff can't be beat for an exciting 8th Movement and an urgent 9th. Pollini is very fast in both pieces but holds it together perfectly; his detail with quick tempos is very impressive, and he offers us a high degree of excitement and tension.
Problems arise with the remaining issues. Ashkenazy is too soft in the 8th Movement, reserving a very hard quality for the 9th; I would have preferred a reverse effect. Hough gives a quick and 'glossed-over' reading of the 9th Movement, Rosen is too tame in the 8th Movement, and the quick speeds which work so well for Pollini damage the Gieseking performances; detail is blurred with much of the responsibility coming from the age of the recording.
10th Movement - Florestan returns quite angry, dramatic, and loaded with drive. All six versions excellently capture the moods. Any significant differences take place in the relatively tender interludes where Eusebius competes for our attention. Gieseking and Kempff offer tense and urgent interludes where the interplay between Florestan and Eusebius is stunning. The remaining four versions tend to give Eusebius top billing; they are lovely played interludes that lack some emotional diversity and weight when compared to Gieseking and Kempff.
11th & 12th Movements - The 11th Movement is a poignant Eusebius piece but not one of Schumann's more inspired works. However, Gieseking lifts the music as much as possible through his inflections and cascading descending lines. Kempff is disappointing in this movement and also in the humorous 12th Movement. In the 11th, Kempff is somewhat stiff and ordinary; emotional depth is lacking. The 12th Movement finds Kempff more austere than humorous. The other versions do well with the 12th's humor and the 11th's poignancy.
13th Movement - A powerful and driving force contrasts with tender and gorgeous interludes, creating a very diverse movement. Kempff certainly provides the power, but it's his slow poignancy in the interludes which wins my heart. Gieseking delivers the total package; he's a wild man one minute and a role-model of gentleness the next. Another great version comes from Hough whose determination/drive is the best among the six versions. Pollini, Rosen, and Ashkenazy perform admirably, although Rosen could have injected much more drive into his reading.
14th Movement - Comforting Eusebius music tinged with some regret and tension. Blending the comfort and tension constitutes the key to a great performance, and Rosen's the one who does it beautifully. You won't find a more comforting rendition, yet the tension is always lurking in the background. Least appealing and quite surprising is the performance from Kempff which is so slow that the musical flow keeps getting untracked.
15th Movement - This piece begins and ends with exuberance, good cheer, and abundant power. What's in-between is a blend of swirling dreaminess and strong urges. Except for Hough, each artist is excellent in conveying the above themes in a similar manner. Hough isn't particularly dreamy or urgent, because he distances himself from the music. Hough plays the piece rather than experience it.
16th Movement - I love this music in a power-house performance with great drive, and that's exactly what I get from Ashkenazy and Pollini; each is on a mission with total focus. Frankly, I find the remaining versions rather dull and reticent.
17th Movement - The most attractive element of this lovely piece is the serenity it offers, and Ashkenazy is the epitome of serenity with a slow and luxurious reading. Also exceptional is the Rosen performance with its perfect blend of serenity and tension. Each of the other versions is very rewarding.
18th Movement - The last movement is an elegant waltz played beautifully by all except for Ashkenazy and Pollini. Ashkenazy captures little of the music's poignancy nor does he inject much vitality. Pollini shortens note values; that's a dangerous thing to do with elegant music, and Pollini doesn't pull it off.
Although each of the six recordings is easy to recommend, I feel that the Gieseking and Kempff stand out from the crowd. Kempff's Kinderszenen for Deutsche Grammophon lacked some animation, but he's abundantly equipped with it for Davidsbündlertänze. His performances are usually crisp and vital with fine strength when called for and excellent emotional depth and poignancy in the Eusebius music. Perhaps Kempff's best moments are when he conveys the interaction between Florestan and Eusebius.
Walter Gieseking can certainly be a wild man in some of the Florestan pieces, but I am most impressed with the exceptional articulation and spacing he employs for Eusebius. Sound quality can be an issue, particularly with the piano tone; however, Gieseking's commanding performances overcome the problem.
It's hard to find fault with Charles Rosen. His voice interplay is superb, and his performances are clean and precise. I would have liked greater exuberance and drive from him in the Florestan pieces, but Rosen is a fine choice by any reasonable standard. The sound is on the clinical side, but so is Rosen.
Maurizio Pollini is given a fantastic soundstage to work with, and he often is illuminating. However, he tends toward quick tempos for Eusebius, and the resulting degree of emotional depth can be rather low. But with many excellent movements and exceptional sound, Pollini's recording is heartily recommended.
The basic complaint I have concerning Ashkenazy's version is the usual one; Decca's sound is a far cry from displaying much clarity and crispness. The tubby soundstage is not conducive for revealing detail or voice interplay. Even so, there is much to enjoy in Ashkenazy's performances which generally are spot-on concerning the representations of Florestan and Eusebius.
Stephen Hough likes quick tempos. As would be expected, he has no problems with providing exuberant and driving music-making. However, he often glosses over the poignancy of the Eusebius pieces in comparison to the best alternatives.
Summing up, you can't go wrong with any of the six reviewed recordings. My strongest recommendations go out to Kempff and Gieseking, but the others are also insightful and stimulating. I'll be back with additional versions in Part 2, and we'll see if any of them can equal the quality of Kempff or Gieseking.
Copyright © 2002 by Don Satz.