Updated: Nov 27, 2021
For readers who immediately jump to the end of a review in order to get the bottom-line judgment, let me state it immediately. This well-recorded release is the best Schumann recital from an American pianist in years. Reed Tetzloff has a strong, assured technique; he is in total sympathy with Schumann’s idiom, and he has deeply thought through his interpretations of the four works on the program but especially the two main ones, Carnaval and Piano Sonata No. 1 in F♯ Minor. Anyone who loves these works is very likely to come away in admiration of how maturely Tetzloff approaches such a fascinating, whimsical, impetuous, self-divided genius as Schumann.
On first hearing Kreisleriana at the age of 17, Tetzloff says in the booklet interview, he thought that the piece was “a soundtrack for life itself.” With this perspective as a jumping-off point, Tetzloff expresses himself eloquently about every facet of Schumann’s musical personality. Typically, presenting an interview in lieu of proper program notes is barely second-best, but in this case something remarkable is revealed. America has a tradition of producing pianists with a strong intellectual bent—one could name Charles Rosen, Russell Sherman, and Jonathan Biss—all writers of insightful books. Tetzloff’s interview is as penetrating, intelligent, and cultivated as any of his predecessors.
He unravels the multi-dimensional scheme behind Carnaval as a kind of literary mystery, using the kaleidoscopic image of a masked ball at Carnival time populated by a raft of characters. These range from musical celebrities (Paganini and Chopin) to the two romantic attachments Schumann had at the time (Clara Wieck, whom he knew from childhood, and his then-fiancée Ernestine von Fricken) and his own imaginary alter egos, Eusebius and Florestan. This much most pianophiles know, but Tetzloff elaborates on the enigmatic use of the four-note sequence that dominates Carnaval, E♭-C-B-A, which Schumann’s intricate literary mind recombined to signify his own name, Clara’s, and the town of Asch, where Ernestine lived. Then there is the hidden significance of saving the key of C for Clara (a lifelong association) and the keys around E for Eusebius and F for Florestan.
Tetzloff explores these intricacies deeper than any other pianist I’ve heard commenting on the piece, rising almost to Rosen’s exalted intellectual level. But at the same time I reflected that Rosen as pianist couldn’t always equal the insights of Rosen as writer. Occasionally Tetzloff runs into this limitation, too. His general style in Schumann favors exuberance, energy, and excitement (Florestan’s persona) over poetry and dreaming (Eusebius’s persona). Everything is musically satisfying, but considering that the pianist’s keyboard heroes are Cortot and Uchida, he isn’t able to free his imagination quite as much as they do.
Tetzloff’s technique allows him to be riveting in a section like “Paganini” and the final March of the Davidsbund. The extrovert movements in Sonata No. 1 come off best; despite his poetic feeling for the Aria movement when he talks about it, there is a certain sameness of touch that inhibits the actual performance. If Tetzloff had Uchida’s sensitivity of touch, he’d transcend any of the younger American pianists I get to hear on disc. As it stands, I’d place Andrew Tyson ahead of him for both imagination and touch, and an established interpreter like Biss exhibits more depth through his fingers—right now Tetzloff’s words are ahead of his fingers.
I hasten to add that I am setting him beside the great Schumann interpreters that linger in memory. There have been superlative readings of the two short works on the program, Arabeske and Romance No. 2 from the three Romances of op. 28—Clara thought that the latter, which was written for her, the tenderest music she had ever heard, and half a century later she asked to hear it on her deathbed. Tetzloff’s readings are exemplary, but I’m not sure they move the listener as much as the music, as he tells us, moves him.
I can’t find a date of birth for Tetzloff, but he was born in Minneapolis, graduated with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Mannes School, and is New York based. He has placed in several competitions, tours internationally, including in China, and seems to be carving out a busy career. In other words, he occupies the middle distance in the very tough, demanding life of a concert pianist. I hope this release brings him wider recognition. On the strength of his Schumann, he deserves to be seen as a striking talent with great future prospects.