In the seven years before his marriage to Clara Wieck in 1840, Schumann wrote some of his best-loved keyboard works, including the First and Second piano sonatas, Kreisleriana, the C-Major Fantasy, and Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood). Schumann was infatuated with Clara Wieck, the budding pianist and composer, 10 years his junior; her father’s implacable opposition to the match had the predictable result of propelling them into each other’s arms. Nevertheless, living in different cities (Schumann in Leipzig and Clara in Vienna) the young lovers were compelled to conduct their clandestine courtship through letters and music.
Written in a fevered outpouring of inspiration over the course of just 4 days in April 1838, Robert Schumann’s Kreisleriana remains one of the staples of the romantic solo piano repertoire. The composer himself regarded this suite in 8 movements as one of his finest compositions – in 1839, soon after publishing it, Schumann referred to it in a letter to musical acquaintance as “my favourite work,” remarking that “the title conveys nothing to any but Germans.”
The eight fantasy-like pieces that constitute the work were inspired by a fictional musician created by the great Romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffmann. Like the emotionally unstable Schumann, Hoffmann’s Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler “was drawn constantly to and fro by his inner visions and dreams as if floating on an eternally undulating sea, searching in vain for the haven which would grant him the peace and serenity needed for his work.” The moody, asocial Kreisler (Hoffmann’s alter ego) is a musical genius whose creativity is stymied by an excessive sensibility.
In addition to its literary associations, the work was in part a love letter in disguise for Clara. “Play my Kreisleriana sometimes!” he told her. “There’s a very wild love in a few movements, and your life and mine and many of your looks.”
Within the 8 separate pieces, there are a stream of contrasting sections, resembling the imaginary musician’s manic depression and in the process recalling Schumann’s own Florestan and Eusebius, the two fictional characters which he used to symbolise his own contrasting impulsive and dreamy sides.
Correspondence of the time reveals the ongoing struggles Schumann faced in his battle against Clara father. Unsurprisingly, Kreisleriana is a very dramatic piece as a result, which has led to numerous recordings being committed to posterity, each of them offering different interpretations and readings in their own right.
In summary, the most obvious conclusion to draw from this seminal work is that the music represents a period of Schumann’s life whereby his only true outlet to deal with his passions for his then unattainable lover (Clara) was through the composition of works such as Kreisleriana, however I believe there is more to it than that; the schizophrenic nature of the work, veering constantly as it does between Florestan and Eusebius speak to us in a somewhat darker sense about the mental state of the composer, even at this relatively early stage in his career. Schumann clearly saw and recognised his own two conflicting personalities and wanted to find a way of venting them in art form, allowing them a voice and virtual personality of their own.
That in essence is what I believe makes this work and all of Schumann’s other output so fascinating. Ultimately, Kreisleriana might well have been the piece which finally gave its composer the confidence to expand beyond writing purely for the piano (all of Schumann’s published compositions were written exclusively for the piano up until 1840 – coincidentally this was also the year when he and Clara were finally married.)
This is a piece which is very close to my heart, having studied the work at length in my younger years and retaining a fascination with the composition to this day. Whether you are familiar with this work or hearing it for the first time, I offer my warm encouragement to acquaint yourself with it as I did all those years ago.
To reflect these many different approaches which renowned pianists have undertaken when tackling this enigmatic work, I have provided 8 different Spotify links to best illustrate the point along with notes on each of the 8 sections. These demonstrate my belief that you can hear something different and make completely new discoveries every time you listen to this fascinating work.
1. Äußerst bewegt (Extremely animated)
For the opening movement, I have chosen this 2004 recording by Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin as I feel this performance best catches the mood of what is a truly tempestuous and stormy opening. Technically flawless playing and well-judged pedalling combined with a manic, almost disturbing feel is in my view exactly what Schumann would have wanted the performer to have delivered. Equally, the more tranquil, dream-like middle section is delivered with beautiful delicacy, the falling arpeggios blurring into a cascading stream underneath a plaintive melody. The feelings of reflection don’t last however and we are soon whisked forward into that wild and uncontrollable surge toward a high D minor conclusion.
2. Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch (Very inwardly and not too quickly)
Generally clocking in at somewhere between 7 and 8 minutes, this second movement is the longest of them all, the reason for this being that there are three different sections within it, again offering the contrasting moods which Schumann was so successfully able to create throughout. Here, I have chosen a 1962 recording by Vladimir Horowitz. The first observation about this recording is the tone of the instrument – whilst not a particularly ancient recording, the piano doesn’t sound like a modern concert grand, which actually suits the meditative feel of the opening statement. When more power and volume are called for, Horowitz delivers all the accents and attacks with gusto – his instrument responds in kind and the end result is a truly wonderful execution.
3. Sehr Aufgeregt (Very agitated)
The scrambling G minor passages which sound like warnings of impending danger sandwich an introspective and dreamy middle section and for this track, I have chosen a 1998 recording by András Schiff. Schumann marked this third movement “extremely agitated” and in my experience, not every pianist pays great attention to this direction. Here, Schiff creates the desired effect perfectly and whilst never thrashing the keys, is still able to convey the necessary degree of urgency to the listener.
4. Sehr langsam (Very slowly)
The fourth movement, very slow and ponderous in nature, calls for the services of a true Schumann specialist and I have therefore selected one of the most lauded recordings of Kreisleriana, by Romanian maestro Radu Lupu. It is often felt that Lupu somehow manages to evoke sounds from the piano quite unlike any other performers and I believe there is a degree of truth to this. This recording provides ample evidence of his excellent judgement in tempo, phrasing and sheer finesse as an interpreter of Schumann’s piano music.
5. Sehr lebhaft (Very lively)
From one Schumann specialist to another: to demonstrate the 5th movement, I have opted to highlight the excellence of Japanese master pianist Mitsuko Uchida. By this mid-way point of the suite, the listener might be forgiven for pondering whether we are hearing variations on a theme in G minor, therefore there is a great need for a pianist who is capable of infusing a sense of fresh energy into the proceedings – not many can carry this off with true panache, but Uchida does it with consummate ease.
6. Sehr langsam (Very slowly)
A slow opening, which proposes a song-like melody that grows into something akin to a lullaby sets the scene for the storm yet to come. When it appears, it is announced with a bang, scales veering the music from one crashing chord to another before settling down into a more cautious, probing mode. This track is a 1983 recording by the legendary Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich. She demonstrates full control throughout, dynamic contrasts are expertly observed and her pauses for reflection are beautifully timed. What makes this recording special is that nothing is rushed, nor does it feel laboured – it’s just wonderful musicianship.
7. Sehr rasch (Very fast)
Commencing with an abrupt plunge into C minor, this is a violently excitable movement where the velocity and intensity increase in a central fugato until it all collapses in slower, chorale-like music at its close. For this track, I have chosen a 2001 recording by Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini. On first hearing, the observer might grimace at what sounds like a mushy, echoey sound, but this might be a rash judgement: as the movement is propelled forward, the listener can truly begin to appreciate the nimbleness and technical dexterity of Pollini’s playing. Furthermore, whilst most recordings of this movement will provide an excellent rendition of the manic first section, very few afford real attention to the chorale-like closing section. Here, Pollini draws out the hidden and fleeting beauty as we enjoy a moment of calm and solace before the final movement.
8. Schnell und spielend (Fast and playful)
For the closing piece of the suite, I have opted to “go back to my roots” by selecting the recording which first acquainted me with this wonderful work – this from 1988 by little known pianist Jenö Jandó for the no frills label Naxos.
It says much for the playing of Jandó for the strong impression with which he made on a young boy listening for the first time to Kreisleriana. It’s not particularly showy or sparkling in terms of sound, however there is something admirably workmanlike about the approach taken: the tempo is steady, the bass pedalling is right given prominence with its curious offbeat insistence. In the crusading, somewhat grandiose middle sections, Jandó goes for it and builds thumping great power chords (in a style not dissimilar to the closing piece of Carnaval. Those great columns of sound suddenly fall away like crumbling walls into a last recital of that glum but dutiful G minor theme (which Schumann clearly liked enough to recycle for later use in his first symphony.)
Countless pianists choose to race through, bluster or over complicate these eerie closing passages in some way – not so Jenö Jandó, who in the closing bars guides the music’s driving, frenetic energy through a gradual dissolution, the final remaining notes descending the keyboard and fading to a subterranean whisper.