The Schumann Fantasy is one of the most subjective works in the piano repertoire. It is perhaps one of the most difficult of all to bring off as a convincing and integrated whole. In this sense it is much like the Chopin sonatas; many great artists have offered us wonderful performances of individual movements, but few have realized the works as a truly satisfying whole.
I looked forward to this recording a great deal. I could think of no pianist better equipped to deal with the thorny technical demands of Schumann than Hamelin. He gives us a fiery and heroic effort. It is a spacious account, well conceived, wonderfully thought out and (as expected) brilliantly executed. But, it is on the spiritual and emotional plane that Schumann somehow eludes Hamelin; he comes close but stops short of the summit, and at times this most romantic of works sounds too deliberate, direct and literal.
However, the very qualities which undermine Hamelin in the Fantasy make for great performance of the G-minor Sonata. Hamelin makes a compelling argument for a work which has languished on the fringes of the literature. Rather ironically this sonata, its companion in F-sharp minor, Op. 11, and the Etudes symphoniques, Op. 13, all enjoyed great exposure at the turn of the century. Indeed, if one looks back to recital programs between 1898 and 1920, it is hard to find a program where one of these works (or the Fantasy) was not featured by artists ranging from Emil von Sauer to Percy Grainger--along with the ubiquitous Brahms Paganini and Handel Variations.
Little more needs to be said about the Symphonic Etudes, except that Hamelin dispatches them (in the 1850's revision) with ease. I would welcome this piano-slayer to turn his attention to the Brahms sonatas or just about anything else less over-played. And, despite Hamelin's strength in the sonata, he is very clearly outclassed by Argerich. This recording contains some very nice playing, but there are far better Schumann interpretations from Pollini, Richter, Cortot and Gilels. Hopefully, we also have a lot more to forward to from Arcadi Volodos if his Bunte Blatter is any indication.
As for the Fantasy? I will continue to enjoy Jorge Bolet's reading, but it is Arnaldo Cohen on Vox who gives what is perhaps my single favorite performance of this work; one which bears out repeated listening and is beautifully recorded and eminently affordable at budget price.
I enjoyed this recording and as a fan of Hamelin I was not overly disappointed even though some weaknesses in him are finally revealed. Nice to know that he is human; after all, even Horowitz had trouble with Beethoven. In all fairness, I could live without this one but wonder if Hamelin played it all much better before a live audience.