Steering clear of more obvious repertory choices, this collection mixes big-boned and intimate Schumann. Dedicated to Moscheles, the F-minor Grande Sonate was chronologically the third of Schumann's Piano Sonatas to be published, in the autumn of 1836, under the (passingly questioned catchpenny) title of “Concert sans orchestre”. In this version, it comprised three movements. Two previously intended Scherzos were omitted. The 1853 revision re-instated the D-flat second of these, replacing the discarded original second movement of the 1836 manuscript (edited separately by Brahms in 1893), making up the four-movement ordering of the edition for the present recording.
Provocatively, Nikolai Demidenko (Hyperion, 1996) offers us Schumann's five-movement conception – music dating from a dark, turbulent phase of the composer's life. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet prefers to confine himself to the final thoughts of the relatively familiar 1853 edition, with, by way of homage, one or two hybrid touches emanating from Horowitz – for whom Bavouzet played the piece in Paris in 1985. Bavouzet identifies with the music intensely, at grips with the muscular gesturing of the first movement and the power and manic tumult of the Finale – “one of the wildest pieces of music in 19th century piano literature” he claims (omitting Alkan from the equation). With the variation slow movement – on a theme by the young Clara Wieck that permeates the Sonata holistically (indeed right away from the assertively metamorphosised left-hand opening descent) – he unfussily assures us that its tempo is not so much a Slavonicised adagio as a Germanic andantino. Concerning the repeated D-major chords leading-in the Trio of the Scherzo, 1:58ff, he observes interestingly that in the Stichvorlage (British Library) Schumann wrote beneath them (in German) the words “Fire of angels”, not reproduced in any of the published sources. “Was this a secret message to Clara? That is what I would like to think”. Plausibly possible, given Schumann's passion for sub-texting and ciphering during this period.
Bavouzet's Faschingsschwank aus Wien is robust, its Marseillaise allusions physically clamorous, the Finale upfront and headstrong. The central Scherzino goes some way towards addressing the rhythmic/articulation issues of the score, notably the slurred crotchets (resisting over-shortening the second of each pair) and quaver couplets (steadying the staccato element) – facets of Schumann's imaginative invention that derail all too many performances, even Richter's. Overall, though, it's perhaps a touch humourless, less fantastical than Michelangeli's 1957 London reading (DG).
With so much adrenalin and changing emotional theatre, so many fingers in swirling, dazzling races to the finish, the two late cycles, lyrically pointed, benefit from tender, discerningly judged balancing. If I prefer the Fantasiestücke to be more gapped, especially leading into the A-flat poetry of the second, Schumann's precisely noted attacca markings prescribe evidently otherwise. The final bar of the last of the rarely-heard Gesänge der Frühe (Songs of Dawn) is one of elevated artistry, the graced C-sharp appoggiatura of the right-hand D-major chord held momentarily, waiting resolution, like an ember in a sleeping fire, brightening briefly before slipping into darkness.
Cleanly engineered, the piano, a Yamaha CFX grand tangibly present, speaks with plenty of bass end and mid-frequency emphasis. More than once you feel next to a throbbing, long-haul L.N.E.R. engine – hot iron and steam, every pressure gauge on the safe side of red.