Nachtstücke op. 23
Elis · Alexander Skriabin:
Sonate Nr. 9
Gaspard de la Nuit
Adagio KV 540
Herbert Schuch’s concert programmes are always characterised
by a love for dramaturgical detail, with a
dash of daring and joy in experimenting. The listeners
benefit from a new outlook on well-known works of
music and encounter with pieces seldom performed
whose coherence is astonishing.
In Maurice Ravel’s “Gaspard de la nuit”, a measure
of the virtuoso skills of any pianist, he shows every
nuance of his dexterity, but especially his talent for
“telling” the music and taking the audience with him
into a musical cosmos. In addition to this, his personal
understanding of Schumann adds an inner logic
to the music that one is rarely allowed to hear. The
CD furthermore strikes the listener with the internal
coherence of the works which Schuch plausibly
explains in an interview printed in the accompanying
Humour in the night
Florian Olters talks with Herbert
the works on this CD
“The night awakens peculiar feelings and
lends everything a sentimental tone in that
the exterior world, whether hidden by darkness
or illuminated by twilight, does not
immediately excite the imagination but lets
emotions prevail, with the result that all
of the soul’s activities turn inward.”/i> Mr.
Schuch, to what extent does this quote from
Aesthetik der Tonkunst by Ferdinand Hand
(1841) fit this CD?
The reference to Robert Schumann is evident.
It is known that Schumann was occupied with
Hand’s work. Nevertheless, I have one objection:
his Nocturnes are not all “hidden by darkness
or illuminated by twilight”. They contain
everything, including eeriness, bizarre and
subtle humour. It is still unknown how the title
Nocturnes came to be. There is some speculation
that it was connected with the death of
What do you think?
My opinion is that the Nocturnes are related to
E.T.A. Hoffmann’s narrative work. Schumann’s
Nocturnes were originally intended to be called
“Funereal fantasies”. In addition, Schumann
originally gave the four pieces titles that he then
rejected before publication. The first piece was
called “Funeral march”, the next “Curious company”,
the third “Nocturnal feast” and the last
“Canon with solo voices”. This all calls to mind
Hoffmann’s Fantasy Pieces in Callot’s Manner.
And Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit as well.
Particularly because the individual movements
from Ravel’s work, which was inspired
by Aloysius Bertrand’s 1842 eponymous
poem, also has titles and themes that are no
less bizarre: Ondine (the mermaid Undine),
Le gibet (the hanged man on the gallows at
twilight) and Scarbo (a bogeyman or demon
that disturbs people as they sleep).
There are in fact amazing connections between
Callot, Hoffmann, Schumann, Bertrand
and Ravel. On the one hand, there
are Schumann’s Nocturnes and Hoffmann’s
Fantasy Pieces in Callot’s Manner (based on
the French illustrator Jacques Callot). On
the other hand, in the third piece of Ravel’s
Gaspard de la nuit (Scarbo) in the poem by
Bertrand, there is a quote from Hoffmann’s
Nocturnes. Preceding the verses, Bertrand
cites Hoffmann, who in turn refers to Callot.
But there’s more. Bertrand’s verses, which inspired
Ravel, are Fantasy Pieces in Rembrandt’s
and Callot’s Manner – according to Bertrand’s
subtitle. The allusions are quite apparent –
whether conscious or unconscious. Ultimately,
this affects Schumann’s and Ravel’s works,
directly or indirectly.
Gustav Mahler also conceived the slow movement
from his First Symphony “in Callot’s
manner”. Were these connections clear to you
when you began developing the program?
The program for the CD evolved intuitively.
First of all, I definitely wanted to play Ravel’s
Gaspard de la nuit, which is an immense
challenge for every pianist. While looking for
adequate pieces to couple the Ravel with, I
came across Schumann’s Nocturnes. It was no
major step from Schumann to Heinz Holliger,
because Holliger’s works are closely related
to Schumann’s. As I played these three
different works in concerts, I noticed that
they are basically tone paintings that follow
a certain musical poetry. I thus wanted to
integrate a dramatic core and thus added Alexander
Scriabin’s Piano Sonata No. 9 (“Black
Mass” ) and Mozart’s Adagio.
Can’t one also hear a certain romantic tone
poetry in Mozart’s Adagio that to some extent
anticipates Schumann’s sense of romanticism?
Of course. Take the G.P.s at the end of the
development: they are like white spots – they
leave one at a loss. The Adagio is by Mozart
– but is highly atypical for him. It is quite
noteworthy for its time. Mozart wasn’t commissioned
to write it; it came out of his own
deep need to compose it. In regard to lack of
unity, the Fantasy in C Minor also certainly has
something Schumann-like about it. If Schumann
had known the Adagio, he certainly
would have revised his opinion of Mozart.
What connections do you hear between
Mozart’s Adagio and Scriabin’s Black Mass?
First of all, both pieces match each other formally:
they are both written in sonata form.
Apropos formal compositional procedures:
there are also parallels between Schumann
and Ravel. It may be that Schumann’s tone
poetry describes emotional states while
Ravel’s music conveys a depth
of emotion through a sensual,
colorful and brilliant surface of
sound. But similar to Schumann,
Ravel develops a melody in Ondine
that is constantly revealed in
a new light. Just recall the first
Nocturne by Schumann.
Although in Schumann, the
transformation takes place primarily
at the semantic level: a
proud march progressively becomes
a shadowy hustling.
That’s true. Schumann strings
together semantics and various
ideas to produce contrast. But
– and this decisive: a great synthesis does
develop. The contrasts in his music are not
always moody and abrupt but flow into each
other. This is what ultimately determines the
form of his pieces – which are to some extent
structured based on transitions.
To what degree can one speak of humour?
I think that at that time, humour had much
to do with contrast. Ludwig van Beethoven,
for example, was often rebuked for his bizarre
attitude, which primarily meant the angular,
contrasting and brusk manner of his music.
Conservative circles considered his late works
to be bizarre. In the 1830s, these characteristics
were classified under the term “romantic
humour”. According to this, humour is the
principle of contrast or the combination of
things that don’t actually belong together.
Humour does not necessarily have to do with
a funny mood, but is a certain philosophy of
life. This is very marked in Schumann.
And in Holliger’s music? One frequently
reads that Holliger is a “modern Schumann”
because his music uses melodiousness to express
a spiritual impulse.
Well, the styles and means of expression may
have changed but it is well known that Holliger
is a fan of Schumann. What one hears in
Holliger’s music in any case is humour in the
romantic sense – i.e. contrast. In Elis – Three
Nocturnes (1961/66), events throughout the
pieces are organized according to measures.
These are short figures and gestures. I sense
a strong gestural element in Holliger’s music.
And I feel parallels to Ravel as well.
First of all, he explores many sound possibilities
– there is a sensual sound to his works. In
contrast, Schumann’s Nocturnes almost never
stray from the middle range of the piano –
this is a music that strongly illuminates its
center. In Holliger’s music, the distribution
of sound in space is an essential characteristic
and points to Ravel.
But how is humour expressed in Ravel’s
There are many sides to humour. Sándor Végh
once said that humour is a form of “being super-
serious”. In this sense, Le gibet is a superserious
piece. Dead people hanging from the
gallows, observed in the twilight: Callot has
drawings which depict dozens hanging at the
gallows. One can find this horrible, but one
can also laugh in horror. Le gibet is a pitchblack
night painting; this is where one can
make a connection to Scriabin’s Black Mass.
In this work, Scriabin cites Franz Liszt’s
Faust Symphony (among other works) and
reinterprets the bell motive from Modest
Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov as well.
How does Ravel work?
There is a monstrous inevitability to Le gibet.
Similar to Scriabin’s bell motive, Ravel insistently
uses tone repetitions, although Scriabin
makes such repetitions even more dramatic
through tempo increases. Apropos Black
Mass: Beethoven called the B Minor of Mozart’s
Adagio the “black key”.
Translation: Elizabeth Gahbler
I. „Elis, wenn die Amsel im
Schwarzen Walde ruft,
Dieses ist dein Untergang.“
(aus „An den Knaben Elis“)
II. „Blaue Tauben
Trinken nachts den eisigen
Der von Elis’ kristalliner Stirne
(aus „Elis II“)
III. „Ein goldener Kahn
Schaukelt, Elis, dein Herz am
(aus „Elis I“)