In the seven years before his marriage to Clara Wieck in 1840, Robert Schumann wrote some of his best-loved keyboard works, including the First and Second piano sonatas, Kreisleriana, the C major Fantasy, and Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood). Schumann was infatuated with Clara, the budding pianist and composer who was ten years his junior; her father's implacable opposition to the match had the predictable result of propelling them into each other's arms. Nevertheless, living in different cities (Robert in Leipzig, Clara in Vienna) the young lovers were compelled to conduct their clandestine courtship through letters and music.

Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler sketched by ETA Hoffmann
© Public domain

Written in a fevered outpouring of inspiration over the course of just four days in April 1838, Robert Schumann's Kreisleriana remains one of the staples of the Romantic solo piano repertoire. The composer himself regarded this eight-movement suite as one of his finest compositions. In 1839, soon after publishing it, Schumann referred to it in a letter as “my favourite work”, remarking that “the title conveys nothing to any but Germans.”

The eight fantasy-like pieces that constitute Kreisleriana were inspired by a fictional musician created by the great Romantic writer ETA Hoffmann. Like the emotionally unstable Schumann, Hoffmann's Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler “was drawn constantly to and fro by his inner visions and dreams as if floating on an eternally undulating sea, searching in vain for the haven which would grant him the peace and serenity needed for his work.” The moody, asocial Kreisler (Hoffmann's alter ego) is a musical genius whose creativity is stymied by an excessive sensibility. 

In addition to its literary associations, the work was, in part, a love letter to Clara in disguise. “Play my Kreisleriana sometimes!” he told her. “There's a very wild love in a few movements, and your life and mine and many of your looks.”

Within the eight separate pieces, there are a stream of contrasting sections, resembling the imaginary musician's manic depression and, in the process, recalling Schumann's own Florestan and Eusebius, the two fictional characters which he used to symbolise his own contrasting impulsive and dreamy sides. Correspondence from this period reveals the ongoing struggles Schumann faced in his battle against Clara's father. Unsurprisingly, Kreisleriana is a very dramatic piece, which has led to numerous recordings being committed to posterity, each of them offering different interpretations and readings in their own right.

Robert and Clara Schumann, lithography by Eduard Kaiser (1847)
© Public domain

The most obvious conclusion to draw from this seminal work is that the music represents a period of Schumann's life whereby his only true outlet to deal with his passions for his then unattainable love was through the composition of works such as Kreisleriana. However, there is more to it than that. The schizophrenic nature of the work, veering constantly as it does between Florestan and Eusebius, speaks to us in a somewhat darker sense about the composer's mental state, even at this relatively early stage of his career. Schumann clearly saw and recognised his own two conflicting personalities and wanted to find a way of venting them in artistic form, allowing them a voice and virtual personality of their own.

Ultimately, Kreisleriana might well have been the piece which finally gave its composer the confidence to expand beyond writing purely for the piano – all of Schumann's published compositions up until 1840 were written exclusively for the piano. 1840 was also the year when he and Clara were finally married.

To reflect the many different approaches which pianists have undertaken when tackling this enigmatic work, I have provided eight different Spotify links to best illustrate the point along with notes on each section, demonstrating my belief that you can hear something different and make new discoveries every time you listen to this fascinating work. 

 1. Äußerst bewegt (Extremely animated)

This 2004 recording by Evgeny Kissin best catches the mood of what is a truly tempestuous opening. Technically flawless playing and well-judged pedalling combined with a manic, almost disturbing feel is exactly what Schumann wanted. Equally, the more tranquil, dream-like middle section is delivered with beautiful delicacy, the falling arpeggios blurring into a cascading stream underneath a plaintive melody. The feelings of reflection don't last, however, and we are soon whisked forward into that wild and uncontrollable surge toward a high D minor conclusion. 

2. Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch (Very inwardly and not too quickly)

Generally clocking in at somewhere between seven and eight minutes, this second movement is the longest, the reason being that there are three different sections within it, again offering contrasting moods. In this 1962 recording by Vladimir Horowitz, the first observation must be the tone of the instrument – whilst not a particularly ancient recording, the piano doesn't sound like a modern concert grand, which suits the meditative feeling of the opening statement. When more power and volume are called for, Horowitz delivers all the accents and attacks with gusto – his instrument responds in kind and the end result is a truly wonderful execution. 

3. Sehr Aufgeregt (Very agitated)

The scrambling G minor passages which sound like warnings of impending danger sandwich an introspective and dreamy middle section. For this movement, I have chosen a 1998 recording by Sir András Schiff. Schumann marked this "extremely agitated" and not every pianist pays great attention to this direction. Here, Schiff creates the desired effect perfectly and, while never thrashing the keys, is still able to convey the necessary degree of urgency.

4. Sehr langsam (Very slowly)

The fourth movement, very slow and ponderous in nature, calls for the services of a true Schumann specialist and I have therefore selected one of the most lauded recordings of Kreisleriana, by Romanian maestro Radu Lupu. It is often felt that Lupu somehow manages to evoke sounds from the piano quite unlike any other performers and there is a degree of truth to this. This recording provides ample evidence of his excellent judgements of tempo, phrasing and Lupu's sheer finesse as a Schumann interpreter. 

5. Sehr lebhaft (Very lively)

From one Schumann specialist to another: to demonstrate the fifth movement, here is the excellence of Dame Mitsuko Uchida. By this midway point in the suite, the listener might be forgiven for pondering whether we are hearing variations on a theme in G minor, so there is a great need for a pianist who is capable of infusing a sense of fresh energy into proceedings. Not many can carry this off with true panache, but Uchida does so with consummate ease.

6. Sehr langsam  (Very slowly)

A slow opening, which proposes a song-like melody that grows into something akin to a lullaby sets the scene for the storm yet to come. When it appears, it is announced with a bang, scales veering the music from one crashing chord to another before settling down into a more cautious, probing mode. Here is a 1983 recording by the legendary Argentinian pianist, Martha Argerich. She demonstrates full control throughout, dynamic contrasts are expertly observed and her pauses for reflection are beautifully timed. What makes this recording special is that nothing is rushed, nor does it feel laboured – it's just wonderful musicianship. 

7. Sehr rasch (Very fast)

Commencing with an abrupt plunge into C minor, this is a violently excitable movement where velocity and intensity increase in a central fugato until it all collapses in slower, chorale-like music. On first hearing this 2001 recording by Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini, the listener may grimace at the mushy, echoey sound, but this would be a rash judgement. As the movement is propelled forward, one can truly begin to appreciate the nimbleness and technical dexterity of Pollini's playing. Furthermore, whilst most recordings of this movement provide an excellent rendition of the manic first section, very few afford real attention to the chorale-like closing section. Here, Pollini draws out the hidden and fleeting beauty as we enjoy a moment of calm and solace before the final movement. 

8. Schnell und spielend (Fast and playful)

For the closing section, I have opted to “go back to my roots” by selecting Jenö Jandó's 1988 recording for the no frills label Naxos, which first acquainted me with this wonderful work. Jandó is not particularly showy or sparkling in terms of sound, however there is something admirably workmanlike about his approach: the tempo is steady, the bass pedalling is rightly given prominence, with its curious offbeat insistence. In the crusading, somewhat grandiose middle sections, Jandó goes for it and builds thumping great power chords, in a style not dissimilar to the closing piece of Carnaval. Those great columns of sound suddenly fall away like crumbling walls into a last recital of that glum but dutiful G minor theme (which Schumann clearly liked enough to recycle for later use in his First Symphony.)

Countless pianists choose to race through, bluster or over-complicate these eerie closing passages; not so Jandó who, in the closing bars, guides the music's driving, frenetic energy through a gradual dissolution, the final remaining notes fading to a subterranean whisper.