Top Ear

Schumann Under The Lens Of A Mad Genius

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Jeremy Lee writes

In the vast sea of pianists that have come and go these years, only a few stand out as being geniuses, and in that select group, even few stand out as being mad geniuses.  Glenn Gould was one, as is Ivo Pogorelich, and Grigory Sokolov.  Now add this one to the roster:  Valery Afanassiev, a pianist relatively little known in the West but apparently venerated in Japan.  Most of his discography is for the Japanese audiophile label Denon, and as such his albums are pretty difficult to hunt down (though Spotify has most of it).  A writer and philosopher as well as a pianist, his approach to the standard repertoire is what most would call idiosyncratic, but they are all deeply provoking, and this Schumann album even rises to pure greatness.

Put on the first track and tell me where on earth have you heard such a tremendously violent opening to Kreisleriana.  Afanassiev launches his metallic fingerwork onto the keyboard, unleashing a torrent of fury unaided by the pedal, and continues his audacious assault even through the trio which still maintains that air of unease and savagery.  This is also true with the astounding ferocity that Afanassiev brings to the penultimate piece (Sehr rasch), culminating in what can only be described as a tornado of boiling wind.  The fifth piece (Sehr lebhaft) and the last piece (Schnell und spielend) contains more shadowy writing, all realised brilliantly under Afanassiev’s hands, the latter in particular played at a slightly slower than usual tempo so that the quirkily shifting bass line and agitated treble melody sound uneasily alienated from each other.  But Afanassiev also delivers considerable tenderness in the long second movement (Sehr innig), only to be interrupted by his lively and moving renditions of the two Intermezzos.  Idiosyncratic it surely is, but convicting and persuasive.

The Waldszenen can be described in similar terms.  Many of its movements are taken slower than usual, adding to the narrative’s sense of solitariness and melancholy.  Einsame Blumen’s bass line is performed with a detached staccato, like the tottering, unstable first steps of a toddler, almost suggesting the fragility of the flower’s life, while Abschied, not an unduly slow reading, is solemn and dignified.  But the crowning jewel of this Waldszenen is the epic Vogel als Prophet.  Taken at a staggering 6:11, almost three times (!) as slow as Richter’s reading, Afanassiev’s performance is an essay in motionlessness, the bird calls drawn out to the extent that time virtually stops in its tracks.  Such is Afanassiev’s laser-like concentration and masterful shaping of the macrostructure, that the listener’s attention never for a minute wanders, and the ear, led by the music’s tension, is constantly craving for the next utterance, until at last the entire narrative is finished and the 6 minutes, an interminable length on paper, passes by almost imperceptibly.  Afanassiev does have a mildly irritating mannerism, however, in that he gives an ever so slight luftpause before the highest note that disrupts the direction of the melody somewhat, but that’s only a very minor point to make, one that fades instantly when confronted with the genius of Afanassiev’s conception.

The other quibble is the close miking of the piano, which gives a clanging metallic edge to the piano tone especially in the climaxes, but it sort of suits Afanassiev’s ironclad fingerwork well, and it grows on you, so it’s not a big bother to me.  These accounts of Schumann’s two piano masterworks have proved themselves to be enthralling and stimulating, and they have withstood the test of repeated listening (on my part–I return to them very often, even more so than other more conventional renditions).  No matter how many Kreislerianas or Waldszenens you’ve heard, and just when you think you’ve heard enough, take a moment to hear Afanassiev (on Spotify, at least) and appreciate his absolutely mad, absolutely genius takes on these two beloved works.


  • Album name:  Schumann:  Kreisleriana;  Waldszenen
  • Performers:  Valery Afanassiev (piano)
  • Label:  Denon COCO-73315
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  70:26

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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