Newcomers to Schumann's piano trios may feel a bit blindsided by the five-star raves, since this long-neglected music has been under a cloud for a century and a half. Schumann's musical gifts declined tragically and severely as his mental state deteriorated. There is still no adequate diagnosis for why he ended his life as an inmate in an asylum, but signs of imbalance, leading to a suicide attempt, were probably present at an early date. Given the manic state in which Schumann could produce scores in a matter of days or weeks, perhaps he was bipolar. The connection between his genius and his disturbed psyche doesn't need to intrude here - it's a very complex question - but prior generations had no doubt that certain scores, including these three piano trios, showed a drastic falling off.
In what way? The melodies are no longer memorable, the themes often seeming banal; the development sections wander aimlessly; harmonic transitions are arbitrary; no real structure can be discerned as the various instrumental lines falter, sag, and meander. These flaws appeared almost in a straight line after 1850; critics complained that Schumann's music, always rhapsodic and unencumbered by strict sonata form, now showed signs of a troubling shapelessness. The reason for the prospective buyer to know this background is that nothing on this 2-CD set is unalloyed genius - far from it.
Recently the tide has turned in the composer's favor. The first opening probably came when noted violinists like Gidon Kremer began to play the Violin Cto., which had been suppressed by the composer's estate (they went so far as to seek a legal injunction against its performance). The baton was then passed to Martha Argerich, who has recorded a dozen obscure chamber works for EMI, largely drawn from live concerts at her summer festival in Lugano. I applaud the efforts of great musicians to open our ears to music that was scorned and dismissed.
This set, which just received a stone rave from the NY Times, is the latest front in the crusade. Schumann composed the first two piano trios in quick succession in 1847, and without a doubt they contain some beautiful music. Listening to the opening of the Piano Trio no. 1 in D minor Op. 63, you'd assume that this music equals the triumph of his two best and best-known chamber works, the Piano Quartet and Piano Quintet, both dating from one of Schumann's glory years, 1842. But like the other two trios, the first is an inconsistent work, with a sprawling, unfocused first movement and a startlingly banal, repetitive second movement. Although it's been said that the early piano trios were modeled on Mendelssohn's, the opening to Piano Trio no. 2 in F Op. 80 feels more like Beethoven to me, falling in line with Schumann's modeling of his string quartets on Beethoven. The second piano trio has a lovely slow movement and a strangely appealing Scherzo that walks with a limp. The finale feels pointless and disorganized, however.
The Times's reviewer tried to argue against the wandering diffuseness of late Schumann by pointing out moments of counterpoint in the piano trios, as if academic touches amount to inspiration. The real defense of this music lies in turning its weaknesses into strengths, that is, by accenting the spontaneous and unexpected gestures it makes. Between them, pianist Leif Ove Andsness and the Tetzlaff siblings on violin and cello are very good at this defense. There's a lilt and ease about their phrasing that brings light into some very obscure corners. If you are attuned to Schumann's more impenetrable piano works, like the Humoreske Op. 20 or the highly polyphonic Six Studies in Canonic Form - some of the most gnomic music written in the Romantic period - these trios may speak to you, however meandering and strange they become. The six Studies are played here in a transcription for piano trio that isn't by Schumann's hand.
The Piano Trio no. 3 in G minor carries the late opus number of Op. 110 and dates from 1851, well into Schumann's mental disturbance. Some of his late music fascinates people the way De Kooning's paintings do after he fell victim to Alzheimer's. Squiggles and childish doodling got interpreted as a struggle in the being of a romantic artist striving to remain intact. Schumann's third piano trio consists of striking gestures and snatches of melody that never amount to a coherent score, but the gestures have a kind of broken poignancy. On the surface there's no there there. Whether sincerely or not, reviewers have gushed over this new recording as if the dust has been blown off a series of masterpieces. I agree with the first part but not the latter.
Having heard the whole range of music that Schumann composed as he deteriorated, I come away with some moments of pleasure but many more of sadness and regret.