Kreisleriana op. 16 · Arabeske op. 18 · Carnaval op. 9
Michael Korstick, piano
As Michael Korstick’s standard-setting Beethoven cycle
slowly but surely approaches completion (Vol. 7
appeared in November 2009; Vol. 8 is being prepared
for release this fall), this recording demonstrates
another main emphasis of the artist’s musical spectrum.
One could name this Schumann program
“Florestan and Eusebius”, and this would not only
refer to the duality of the two fictitious characters in
“Carnaval”, but also to the opposite poles in which
Squaring the circle
Michael Korstick and Marco Frei discuss
the concept of the Schumann CD
Mr. Korstick, in his book Von Beethoven bis
Mahler, Martin Geck writes that Schumann is
a romantic “tone-poet” who, formally speaking,
did not shake up any musical genres, but
who did consider music to be the language of
emotions. Do you agree?
I think his conclusions are correct. Schumann’s
music certainly does have to do with
personal expression and the condition of the
soul. He always looked for his “content”, so
to speak, first. Afterwards, he began searching
for an independent and applicable form
to transport this musical content. And if he
couldn’t find it, he would invent it himself. With
Schumann, form and content are completely
Geck also says that Carnaval likewise reflects
Schumann’s role in society.
This hypothesis seems highly contrived to me;
I wouldn’t really want to agree.
The polarity of the extroverted, passionate
Florestan on the one hand and the elegiac,
contemplative Eusebius on the other hand
is evident, however, which leads in the end
to different social consequences. Is this a
contradiction, or do these aspects go hand
The latter, definitely: that is the decisive element
on this CD. The important thing is that
Schumann would not be Schumann if neither
of these opposite characters existed in
him – they are two sides of the same coin,
inseparably joined. They go hand in hand, and
if one side of the personality had changed, this
would have had consequences for the other
side. They are indivisible. And this is what
makes makes it such a challenge to interpret
Because you have to achieve the quadrature
of the circle. You have to express completely
different characters using entirely different pianistic
means – as though a number of different
performers were playing at the same time.
If the listener thinks he or she is constantly
hearing one and the same pianist playing the
individual pieces of the cycle, something is
wrong; and yet – the performer’s characteristic
style must be perceivable in every measure.
On the other hand, Schumann’s moods
must always be precisely recognized. But
they are expressed through the performer’s
personality. There needs to be an all-encompassing
In regard to Schumann, the use of pedal
seems to me to be of major significance.
What is your approach here?
In contrast to some other composers, Schumann
added pedal markings at decisive points
– to be precise: whenever he wanted something
unusual to happen, for example, when
different harmonies are supposed to overlap.
In other places, there are no markings at all,
which means that I have to make basic decisions
myself first. And this looks very different
from most situations; Schumann does in
fact treat the pedal very differently than other
The question is: what colors can be achieved
with pedaling by blending chords and harmonies
together, and how can the pedal be used
to make polyphonic progressions clearer.
That seems like a contradiction; one normally
says that the less pedal you use, the easier it
is to hear the polyphony. But with Schumann,
things are the other way around.
You made this recording of Carnaval in 1997.
What is your opinion of it today?
From the performer’s point of view, there are
only two possible answers: either one says
one needs to make a new recording – for
artistic reasons, because one’s knowledge,
requirements or viewpoint has changed. Or
one “takes stock”, so to speak, that is, one
ascertains whether the recording is still valid.
This is what I did in the case of Carnaval, and
this may have to do with my general way of
As a matter of principle, I spend so much
thought on the interpretation of a piece that
five years later I won’t feel everything about it
is wrong. I also believe that the idea of being
“current” is simply not important when one
seriously involves oneself with music. We’re
talking about a deeper truth, and it’s important
to get as close to this as possible. And such a
truth is not subject to day-to-day fluctuations.
Can you still remember the circumstances
and atmosphere during the Carnaval recording?
I remember exactly, because the situation in
the Salle de Musique in the Swiss town of
LaChaux-de-Fonds was so wonderful. It was
one of my two recording debuts in 1997 – one
CD was with the last three Beethoven Sonatas;
the other was the Romantic Album with
Liszt, Chopin and Schumann. In LaChaux-de-
Fonds, I had a wonderful Steinway grand and
a fantastic recording crew. The Romantic
Album with Schumann’s Carnaval was wonderfully
received at the time and made me
instantly famous. And that’s why I wanted this
recording to remain accessible.
Why did you select Schumann’s Carnaval for
At the time, I felt that Carnaval was the embodiment
of the absolutely genuine and quintessential
Schumann – even more so than his
Do you still feel this way today?
Yes, Carnaval spotlights the entire romantic
period – even though it is a relatively early
work, written in the 1830s. Beethoven’s shadow
still loomed large. But even though the
1830s are commonly known as the decade of
the “galante” style, Schumann’s Carnaval has
nothing to do with this. Schumann brought
forth something revolutionary with this work.
Still, one could also call Kreisleriana Schumann’s
key work, especially because Kreisler’s
life and personality – as described by
E.T.A. Hoffmann – up to and including his insanity,
have amazing parallels to Schumann’s
life and personality.
One can certainly see things that way – and
with complete accuracy. What I would assess
differently, however, is that Carnaval needs
background information on the part of the listener.
Someone who is not prepared for Carnaval
will not understand everything upon first
hearing. In regard to Kreisleriana, however, I
feel that something has succeeded here that is
always the case with great art: it stands on its
own without any explanation whatsoever. The
listener does not need to know anything about
Schumann, E.T.A. Hoffmann or Kreisler. This
is such a work of genius in and of itself that
the source of inspiration is completely thrown
into the shade by the expressive power of the
Is Kreisleriana your favorite?
Kreisleriana is my personal favorite among
Schumann’s works. In Carnaval, we are still
dealing with Florestan and Eusebius. It is even
so that Schumann at first – as in the Davidsbündlertänze
– assigned each piece either to
Florestan or to Eusebius. In Kreisleriana, however,
we have even greater depth: Schumann
has emerged from this dissociation to come
much closer to himself.
Which is why you have coupled both of these
works for this CD.
Exactly. While Carnaval is determined by the
polarity between Florestan and Eusebius,
these contradictions dissolve in Kreisleriana
in the sense that they merge organically. Although
a pedant who wanted to work everything
out schematically could still assign individual
pieces to Florestan or Eusebius.
What are the short Arabesques op. 18 doing
between the two large cycles? Are they acting
as some sort of go-between, or do they
introduce another mood, another aspect – a
type of alternative world?
They should, as a matter of fact, introduce
another mood. The emotional tides in the
two major cycles are gigantic. There are, of
course, contrasts in the middle sections of the
Arabesques, but these are not nearly as great.
Here we don’t see these intense emotional ups
and downs – torn between ecstasy and agony,
one might say. Altogether, the Arabesques are
a relatively well-balanced work; the calm in
the eye of the storm, as it were.
Do the Arabesques show us what Schumann
was longing for his entire life?
If we look at the piece starting from its closing
page, I’m certain that’s the case. The thing
here is that the coda – despite its relative brevity
and the overall work’s simple formal structure
– suddenly opens a window onto the universe.
This is where Schumann has moments
of absolute, serene peace – as nowhere else.
For me, these are the most astonishing individual
measures that Schumann ever wrote.
Schumann longed to find peace on earth, and
he found it in this coda.
Was the Florestan-Eusebius polarity the major
formative influence for this CD?
Not on the surface, but at least that aspect
can be seen more in this specific selection of
pieces than in another. On the CD cover, you
see me between two grand pianos and between
two keyboards. One might say that was
meant to make a statement. I sit between two
keyboards, and with Schumann, one likewise
plays on two emotional keyboards.
Does one also sit between two stools?
(laughs) No – that’s the whole point. You really
sit between two keyboards – on one piano
stool and with both feet on the ground!
Translation: Elizabeth Gahbler