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Schumann Fantasie in C; Etudes Symphoniques;
Abegg Variations
Mendelssohn Prelude and Fugue Op 35 No 1

Edna Stern (piano)

Zig-Zag Territoires ZZT070201

I wish I liked this disc more. As a pupil of both Argerich and Zimerman, Stern comes with impeccable credentials; this is an enormously demanding programme, with Schumann’s leading two piano warhorses. As Stern writes, she has a passionate commitment to Schumann’s music.

The virtues of Sterns’ playing are flow and naturalness; the drawback is a lack of that extra gear in moments of heroism. She is more Eusebius than Florestan, then, but this is by no means a gender stereotype. Not just Argerich, but Myra Hess, Clara Haskil, Cecile Ousset, Mitsuko Uchida, Helene Grimaud and Cristina Ortiz, to name just the first female examples who come into my head, have all made treasured Schumann recordings.

Why is the recorded sound so resonant? I don’t remember it as a French trait. I hope it is not to boost Stern’s sound and give the impression of greater power than is there. Certainly, the recording gives the treble a wonderful bloom and life, but the bass becomes impossibly boomy, reminiscent of the old Nikolayev and Richter Olympia discs, that sounded as if they had been recorded in a bathroom. Chordal variations, such as II< become almost impossible to listen to, Stern’s neat fingerwork, as in IX, is almost entirely clouded.

Whatever you do with the volume and EQ controls, the suspicion lingers that the forte and louder passages did not really work in the (four days) of recording. The famous big passages – the starts of the Fantasie opening and scherzo, the finale to the Etudes – simply don’t happen. Those moments when the sound should open out and the approach be at its most broadest and heroic completely lack drive and excitement.

Stern, commendably, writes her own booklet notes. They are, after the French fashion, extremely abstract, but it is clear she goes along with the myth of Schumann as the star-crossed romantic poet-lover. The contrary view, that he was an alcoholic womanising manic depressive who was more than fortunate to have Clara prop him up for his adult years, is too little expressed.

However, my disappointment is actually that Stern does not tell us why she omitted the five ‘posthumous’ variations from the Etudes Symphoniques (I agree with her decision, though fashion doesn’t) and why she included a single Mendelssohn Prelude and Fugue in a disc of Schumann (no reason not to, but nice to know why.)

Zig Zag’s excellent presentation completes the disc. But I can give it only a qualified welcome.

Ying Chang