We all have our favourite music. Our choices are essentially subjective, but occasionally you can get a consensus on something really special. Here’s one in a niche topic: classical piano, the music of Robert Schumann, the Symphonic Etudes.
The Symphonic Etudes were published when Schumann was only 24. Amazing really, at the age when The Knife was a very gauche and naive junior doctor, it’s hard to believe that Schumann was knocking out music as complex, sophisticated and exhilarating as this.
It’s not necessarily Schumann’s finest work, if you could feasibly award such an epithet, but it is astonishing in its structure, energy and sheer tunefulness, as well as being extremely difficult technically. There are lots of good versions – Perahia (not normally a Knife recommendation), Kissin live, Pogorelich – but the peak has to be Maurizio Pollini.
Oddly enough, it’s not apparently available in its original format, except expensively second hand, but the miraculous performance is on this excellent reissue, along with a terrific Schumann Piano Concerto.
Whenever I hear Pollini, it’s hard to pin down what makes him so great. Lots of pianists are technically brilliant, and just about every interview with a professional musician requires them to claim absolute fidelity to the composer’s intentions. Pollini’s hard-nosed sec style is countered by a mysterious ability to imbue the playing with intense emotion and tremendous rhythmic control.
Anyway, if you want to know why classical piano is the zenith of musical expression, in a performance that is truly remarkable (and accessible), this is the one.