Schumann: Piano Sonatas No.1 in F# Minor Op.11 & No.3 in F Minor Op.14

Nikolai Demidenko (Hyperion Helios CDH55300)

27 March 2008 5 stars

SchumannPinpointing the exact moment in time at which music's classical era yielded to romanticism is a highly contentious and trivial exercise. Some observers struggle to place the late works of Beethoven and Schubert, with their expressive and progressive attributes, within the refined confines of classicism. On the other hand, there are those who claim that that Brahms's First Symphony is, effectively, Beethoven's Tenth. Schoolchildren are often sheltered from the debate, provided with the happy medium of a date sometime between 1820 and 1830.

Perhaps the marked demise of the solo piano sonata, which coincides with the death of Franz Schubert in 1828, signifies a turning point. This was a genre in which the great classical composers had excelled. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert wrote nigh on one hundred of these works, many of which were published and had become established in the repertoire by the late 1820s. With the passing of the last of these illustrious, prolific composers of the piano sonata, the genre found itself in a state of rapid decline. In the decades that followed, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt and Brahms were to muster a collective sum of only fifteen piano sonatas, all five composers instead plying the majority of their pianistic trade in other, often shorter forms.

Robert Schumann's three piano sonatas – No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 11; No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22; and No. 3 in F minor, Op. 14 – were all conceived in the mid-1830s, when publishers had turned their backs on the sonata to pursue more accessible salon pieces. Though they came relatively early in his compositional career, they are inventive and audacious attempts to reconcile modern musical ideals with traditional structures. They also represent the composer's desperate yearning for the love he had so vehemently been denied, and the two sonatas that appear on this disc are inextricably linked with this sense of longing. Schumann dedicated Op. 11 to Clara Wieck, later confessing to her that it was 'one long cry from the heart to you', whilst the slow movement of Op. 14 is a set of variations on a melody by Clara.

Originally recorded and released in 1996 (CDA66864), Hyperion's decision to re-issue Nikolai Demidenko's performances of these sonatas on the Helios label is most welcome, and will hopefully bring renewed recognition to these superlative accounts. Demidenko is a formidable pianist, and from the fiery opening bars of the F-sharp-minor Sonata's first movement one senses that something special is about to unfold. The Introduzione finally leaves us in a state of hushed wonder, yielding to the restless commotion of the Allegro vivace. The texturing of Schumann's imitative piano figurations is electrifying, as is the ghostlike final appearance of the second subject in the tonic that brings the movement to an eerie close. A tranquil, ringing cantabile is achieved in the ensuing Aria, which contrasts starkly with the rhythmic dynamism of the iridescent Scherzo. The finale, with its Schubertian harmonic wanderings and its recitative-like Scherzo quotations, is equally captivating.

Demidenko's passion for, and innate understanding of, these works is undeniably and enchantingly palpable throughout these performances. He handles beautifully the dense, idiosyncratic, highly developmental construction of the opening Allegro in the F-minor Sonata, Op. 14. The manner in which the fifth in the bass of the final chord is allowed extra resonance is ingeniously apt, given the significance of this interval in these sonatas both thematically and emotionally (the falling fifth is prominent in two works by Clara Wieck that influenced these sonatas).

The central Quasi Variazioni: Andantino de Clara Wieck receives a truly heartfelt account, beginning with a splendidly weighted semplice and gradually building until its breathtaking, tragic conclusion. Though the two scherzi that frame this movement are of utterly distinguishable dispositions – one roguish, the other resolute – both are granted extremely well-characterised performances. The trio section of the first of these movements is particularly fine. The performance direction of the finale, Prestissimo possibile, suggests the probability of fireworks, and Demidenko does not disappoint, delivering the movement with complete and utter virtuosic and artistic assurance. A flurry of fiendish moto perpetuo semiquavers and blissfully carefree sequential harmonies bring this sonata to an outstanding close. A terrific disc.

By William Norris