‘The first step towards achieving coherence is always intuitive’
Schliessmann says the pieces on this recording ‘are not just statements of “this is my Beethoven sonata”; they are waymarkers on a journey’. As a result, there are lots of interconnections and reflections of the nature of music: Busoni’s rethinking of Bach’s Chaconne, for instance, or the musico-philosophical questions posed by variation form – including the insertion of the so-called ‘posthumous variations’ into Schumann’s Symphonic Studies. As Schliessmann points out, ‘no less a figure than Brahms decided to include these five compositions. It’s my personal choice to include these variations so we have a very large-scale work’.
At the core of Schliessmann’s Weltanschauung is intuition. ‘The first step towards achieving coherence is always intuitive. Later, I divide the score into many portions and study them in a very detailed and minute way. The real art is to recombine these small portions a coherent whole. Only a few pianists and artists can do this. It is breathing out of one breath.’ So deconstruction then reconstruction? ‘Absolutely.’ This approach yields magnificently intelligent readings, so it is no surprise that Schliessmann is amenable to the theories of Heinrich Schenker and his ideas of foreground, middleground and background layers in music. But it extends further. ‘Of course, Busoni was an analyst. He himself was a great pianist, the apogee of piano playing; he knew exactly what he wanted to play. This is also my mission, to understand every point and combine them in an overall coherence.’
Like Scriabin, Schliessmann has synaesthesia and hears music in colours, something he claims comes from another aspect of his life and interests. ‘This is determined by my experience as a diver. I am inspired by colours and by the world of colour.’ Schliessmann mentions this in context with the idea of empathy – something really important to him. Even when he records, Schliessmann has an audience of sorts to give the feeling of a performance.
Such empathy with composers and audiences comes through in his persuasive reading of the Berg Sonata. This piece is ‘inspired by the experience of Tristan’. And despite their different durations, Schliessmann finds deep links between the Berg and Liszt Sonatas. ‘In Liszt, the soul struggles along pathways that lead to fulfilment in God. This I show in my interpretation of the Liszt as a geographic panorama; a breath in, and a breath out. You have to feel this. The same with the Berg Sonata, it also begins in calmness and develops in a very explosive way, up to ffff. Clock time stands still.’
At the Heart of the Piano is at once a musically satisfying statement and summation of all that makes Schliessmann’s playing so special. It also invites us to find connections between these composers, heralding the start of a fascinating journey. IP
At the Heart of the Piano Works by Bach/Busoni, Schumann, Liszt, Scriabin and Berg Burkard Schliessmann pf Divine Art DDA21373 – 3 CDs
All of the pieces on this impressive triple album aim at some sort of transcendence. The Bach/ Busoni Chaconne is at once a tribute to Bach and a pinnacle of the Romantic piano virtuoso repertoire. Schliessmann’s account is noble yet kaleidoscopic. As Busoni pulls Bach into his orbit, so the piano seems to expand into a protoorgan. Schliessmann’s intuitive grasp of the work’s structure allows him to mould it naturally while retaining the underlying form. Its outsized ending leaves the listener feeling replete.
The limpid, descending phrase that opens Schumann’s Symphonic Studies comes as balm to the soul after such high drama. Schliessmann’s commanding performance is beautifully variegated. He is right to follow Brahms’ approach by including Schumann’s posthumously published variations. Grandeur meets tenderness in a performance that suggests Schliessmann’s complete resonance with the spirit of Schumann.
The coupling of mutually dedicated works on the second disc works well. Schumann’s Op 17 Fantasie and Liszt’s Sonata in B minor are like two sides of the same Romantic coin. Schumann’s writing is utterly individual and Schliessmann’s performance is gloriously unbuttoned. The Liszt also receives a fine performance, unrushed in the slower sections, playful and diabolic when the tempo picks up. Schliessmann’s technique is rock solid, his command reminding me of Daniil Trifonov in the music’s stormier sections. He masterfully navigates the expansive lyricism that lies at the heart of Liszt’s masterwork.
The crowning glory of the set, though, is Schliessmann’s Scriabin. His performance of the composer’s Third Sonata (F-sharp minor Op 23) is magnificently powerful, while the six excerpts from the Op 11 set of Preludes are exquisitely moulded. The two Danses Op 73 and five Op 74 Preludes resonate in perfect harmony with Scriabin’s elusive late style.
Schliessmann conjures a glittering yet liminal space, supported not only by his fine Steinway but also by the Divine Art recording and piano technician Georges Ammann, who Schliessmann describes as ‘the best in the world, and the most prominent piano technician from Steinway’ (Ammann only collaborates with five pianists, of whom Schliessmann is one).
The Berg Sonata arises from the fire of Scriabin’s Op 74/5 like a phoenix soaring in a post-Tristan world. Schliessmann’s considered, polished reading, impeccable in its realisation of complex textures, is a model of its kind. This, coupled with a prevailing crepuscular tendresse gives Schliessmann’s reading warmth and academic integrity, bringing his thought-provoking album to a perfect close. COLIN CLARKE
6 International Piano www.international-piano.com