This fascinating album by pianist Guembes-Buchanan contrasts five of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s piano sonatas with a work written by Schumann to commemorate one of his most famous fictional characters, Kapellmeister Kreisler. In her extensive and highly informative liner notes, Guembes-Buchanan makes it clear that, when Hoffmann’s musical works were finally exhumed and examined in the early 20th century, researchers were disappointed that his music did not contain any of the grotesqueries or ironic humor of his famous tales; but some of it has turned out to be very solidly written and worthy of performance.
That is the case with these sonatas. Despite Hoffmann’s lifelong adoration of Mozart (he even legally changed his third name from Wilhelm to Amadeus in honor of his idol), in these piano sonatas the language spoken is halfway towards Beethoven. This should not be surprising, since he only began writing these sonatas in 1805 and had already discovered Beethoven’s music by that time. It should also not surprise us, considering his love of Mozart’s formality, that although the emotional content of the sonatas is close to Beethoven, these works also mirror the structure of Mozart. The result is a constant and fascinating tug-of-war between very Classical design and Romantic harmonies. Hoffmann is constantly mirroring Beethoven’s use of strong keyboard attacks and sudden minor-key turns, so much so that the First Sonata almost sounds like something left out of Beethoven’s op. 2 series of sonatas. It is fitting, then, that Guembes-Buchanan plays them more like Beethoven than Mozart.
The Second Sonata, composed in 1805–07, is of particular interest. Hoffmann packs a considerably dense Beethovenian punch into a work consisting of four linked movements—Adagio e con gravità, Allegro, Larghetto, and Allegro—lasting less than nine minutes. Yet here, I think Guembes-Buchanan is correct in attributing the Sonata’s layout to the influence of C. P. E. Bach, whose music also influenced the young Hoffmann, but once again the basic language spoken is Beethoven. Just note those unusual harmonic turns, major into minor and back again, turning light into darkness but always striving towards something positive.
Those who have read my previous reviews of her work know that I am extraordinarily fond of Guembes-Buchanan’s playing. As a celebrated Beethoven interpreter, she knows full well how to draw out the very best from these interesting scores. Note, particularly, the unusual Third Sonata where, after the Allegro maestosoopening, Hoffmann suddenly presents us with a fugue of remarkable proportions—C. P. E. Bach could not have done better. Guembes-Buchanan not only articulates each note in the fugue with exceptional clarity, but also manages to make it sound dramatic; and again, Hoffmann surprises us by very suddenly pulling back on the tempo and changing gears into the Andante un poco adagio movement without a break. Once again he veers into the minor, pounding out bass notes to emphasize its drama in a Beethoven-like style, only to suddenly change gears and return to the major with a two-voiced canon.
As Guembes-Buchanan aptly points out, Hoffmann was “wrestling with the conventions of the sonata form” as “Beethoven was doing at the time,” but “without a satisfactory solution.” Yet if Hoffmann’s work is not, in the end, as satisfying as Beethoven’s, it is nonetheless interesting for all that. I personally didn’t think this sonata was all that unsatisfactory, and I particularly liked the busy, fugal final Allegro. Hoffmann’s sonatas of this period are only “unsatisfactory” when compared to Beethoven, which is like saying that other symphonies of the early 20th century are unsatisfactory when compared to Mahler. Compared to anyone else of his era, they are fine and interesting works.
The F-Minor Fourth Sonata that immediately follows is written in much the same vein. In this instance, however, I felt that the music was not as strong or as original as its predecessor, despite the fact that it consists of three independent movements and, as Guembes-Buchanan says, is on a higher pianistic level. Sometimes paying greater attention to form and structure dulls the inspiration, and that is what I think happened here.
The Fifth Sonata in C♯ Minor, however, is unquestionably one of Hoffmann’s finest creations. Written circa 1808, three years after Beethoven had published his “Appassionata” Sonata, the first movement begins in a very dramatic fashion and then moves into a two-voiced fugue, but continually uses deft minor-major changes to put the listener on his or her toes, including a lyrical central interlude of some originality. Unlike Beethoven, Hoffmann never really grew stylistically and never (despite Guembes-Buchanan’s claims) developed a recognizably Hoffmann-esque style of his own; but he knew what he was about, and contributed some music that is of lasting value despite its being inspired by pre-existing models. A good example is the brief, mercurial scherzo, in which Hoffmann goes through three or four entirely different moods in only 1:09; in the last movement, the rippling left-hand 16ths in the minor key most assuredly scream “Beethoven” at us, but Beethoven with unusual twists, such as the sudden jump into a different rhythm towards the end.
The second CD, a bit short at 33:02, only contains Schumann’s Kreisleriana, an extraordinarily lively performance that immediately made me sit up and take notice. What a difference from Arthur Rubinstein’s deadly dull RCA recording of the piece (the one that was heavily marketed back in the old days, and the one I learned the work from). Guembes-Buchanan tears into it as if it were Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata, and the added intensity works wonders. I still don’t find it one of Schumann’s strongest pieces, but played as it is here it has a certain demonic intensity worthy of its topic. I should add that this piece seems to have been recorded in a different venue with a different mike placement than the Hoffmann; it is altogether more resonant (in a good way) and less dry than the Hoffmann sonatas. I still don’t feel it is one of Schumann’s best piano works—the Romantic, reflective passages seem to have little or nothing to do with Hoffmann’s Kreisler character—but oddly enough, one hears a musical affinity to some of Hoffmann’s piano works. Had Schumann seen any of his sonatas? It’s within the realm of possibility. Schumann always had “big ears” and was open to any and all musical influences (including the operas of Meyerbeer, which he was originally enthusiastic about until the latter composer “desecrated” the struggle of the French Protestants with Les Huguenots). Even Guembes-Buchanan suggests this by pointing out the “immediate and obvious similarity between Schumann and Hoffmann” in the “extreme contrasts that dominate the musical cycle.” I wholeheartedly agree with her. In addition to paying tribute to one of Hoffmann’s literary creations (not just Kreisler but also Murr the Cat), Schumann was also honoring the poor man’s defeated career as a composer. This is not to say that Schumann was as close in style to Hoffmann as Hoffmann was to Beethoven, but there are most definitely allusions to Hoffmann’s piano style in Kreisleriana. Thus, an age-old mystery is solved.
I cannot recommend this album highly enough. But then again, I can’t recall a recording by Guembes-Buchanan that I haven’t recommended highly. She is one of the most gifted and interesting pianists on the scene today, and nearly everything she releases bears the stamp of genius. – Lynn René Bayley
This article originally appeared in Issue 39:2 (Nov/Dec 2015) of Fanfare Magazine.