Schumann: The Masterworks

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Robert Schumann turns 200 on June 8, sharing a bicentenary year with another Romantic master, Frederic Chopin. But while the recording industry has already lavished considerable attention on Chopin this year, Schumann is just now coming into greater focus. This week's Full Rotation features "Schumann The Masterworks," a limited edition 35-CD collection featuring classic performances from the Deutsche Grammophon archives. 

Schumann lived a tempestuous life and that is an important interpretive springboard for any performer. He fell in love with a child prodigy pianist when she was still a teenager and married her against her father's wishes. He was a compulsive womanizer and a heavy drinker; he later attempted suicide, and eventually died in a mental institution. Schumann’s music can be dreamy and poetic, but it also veers to the impulsive and even violent.

The best performers on this collection – and there are many – capture these extremes. There's Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and pianist Christoph Eschenbach, who together recorded Schumann lieder cycles in the late 1970s and early 80s, especially Dichterliebe, which the great baritone sings with a mixture of pain and optimism. And there's pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, who gives a sweeping account of the Piano Concerto.

Schumann's painfully expressive (if flawed) Violin Concerto, which was suppressed until the 1930s, is heard in a classic recording by the Polish virtuoso Henryk Szeryng. Lynn Harrell delivers a characteristically romantic reading of the Cello Concerto. And violinist Gidon Kremer and pianist Martha Argerich are marvelously reflective and mercurial in a pair of violin sonatas.

There are also less conventional choices. Rather than featuring a modern-sounding orchestra, DG includes John Eliot Gardiner’s period-instrument band the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, whose performances are bracing and astringently clear. Just listen to how the valveless horns produce taut, intense little jabs and the pared-down string section plays with short, hard bowstrokes that give its lines a punchy intensity. Finally, pianist Maurizio Pollini brings a great feeling for structure and clarity, if not always sturm und drang to the Davidsbündlertänze, Kreisleriana, and Gesänge der Frühe.

Though this is not a complete edition, it includes every major work and a number of rarities covering every aspect of Schumann’s broad output.

Schumann: The Masterworks (various artists)

Deutsche Grammophon

Available at Arkivmusic.com