An earlier reviewer points out that the space of sixteen years separates this CD from the last Schumann disc recorded by Pollini. Now another decade has passed since he recorded Kreisleriana, which came out in 2002, a year after this. I suppose there will be no more Schumann from Pollini, but since he is one of the pre-eminent players of Schumann on disc, there's every reason to celebrate what we have. The composer's miracle years for writing piano music were 1836-38, a time when Schumann was obsessed with Clara Wieck. He wrote all of his major piano works from this period, including the two featured here, as a cri de coeur for her. The Sonata in F minor, which the publisher fancifully entitled Concerts sans orchestre (Concerto without Orchestra) uses a theme composed by Clara in the set of variations that is the score's slow movement.
Pollini, who for reasons that have always baffled me, has been saddled with the critical cliche of being cold, but here he fully grasps Schumann's restless, passionate idiom. This music is relatively little played, and one can hear why. Its themes are not memorable, their working out is turbulent, and the harmonies, although not complex, fill out two hands so often that the listener has a hard time following the leading note (not so much a flaw as part of high romantic style, in Rachmaninov and Scriabin as much as in Schumann). Pollini's performance could hardly be bettered. the tide is always roiling, and the virtuosic Prestissimo possible of the finale is tossed off with ease - Pollini probably isn't played "as fast as possible."
The Davidsbundlertanze, eighteen short pieces in the form that Schumann so fully mastered, is also not frequently found in piano recitals compared with Carnaval, Kinderszenen, the Symphonic Etudes, and the Fantasy in C. The writer of the program notes - which by the way are worth reading and well translated from German - proposes that the music can be listened to for itself but grows richer when you realize its several layers. At one level these short episodic effusions express Schumann's longing for Clara and the mood wings it induced. At another level these "dances for the Band of David" are an artistic statement on behalf of new music. The Band of David were an imaginary fellowship, in which Berlioz and Chopin were included, who opposed dull, conventional composing and championed the boundless aspirations of Schumann's romanticism. the third layer, familiar to anyone who knows Schumann's bipolar nature, divides the pieces into those composed by Florestan (representing the composer's turbulent, restless, ecstatic side) and those composed by Eusebius (his cal, radiant lyrical side).
Schumann went so far as to label each episode Fl. or E., depending on which of these imaginary personas wrote them. Later he dropped the conceit, but the musical contrast reveals itself easily as you listen. I'm a bit intrigued by these layers, but in the end I enjoy Schumann just as much without the autobiographical references and philosophical manifesto. As with Waldszenen, Humoreske, and Kreisleriana, three other collections that are hard to penetrate, Davidsbundlertanze can seem to drift and get lost in its own tumult and inward musing. But the eighteen episodes are short, each making a statement that is relatively tight (for Schumann). I thoroughly enjoyed Pollini's warm, totally assured and engaging account. Still, it's too bad that he never gave us tow joyous popular works, Carnaval and Faschingsschwank aus Wien - his mentor Michelangeli can be heard in both. Pollini's passion for Schumann runs to deeper things.