Thursday, March 10, 2011

Respecting the Composer

In the course of writing my review of the Brilliant Classics box of the complete piano works of Robert Schumann, I found myself once again on that turf that so concerned Kelly Dean Hansen over the restructuring of the set of 28 variations that Johannes Brahms had composed on the final caprice of Niccolò Paganini's 24 Caprices.  In this case, however, the composition in question was Schumann’s Opus 13 “Symphonische Etüden” and the five “posthumous variations” that were published after Schumann’s death.  When the pianist Tien Hsieh decided to fold these variations into the overall flow of the original Opus 13, I felt it necessary to provide the following background:
As I recently observed, nine of the twelve etudes are variations on an Andante theme.  The third and ninth etudes are rapid-fire movements that serve as spacers in the unfolding of the variations;  and the theme for the Finale comes from an opera by Heinrich Marschner based on Walter Scott's Ivanhoe.  However, the work was originally conceived as a set of sixteen variations;  and in 1837 Johannes Brahms included five them as an appendix for a new edition of the score.
There are a variety of opinions concerning what to do with these additional variations.  When Jörg Demus released his Gesamtwerk recording of Schumann's piano compositions, he honored their "appendix" status, recording them on a track separated entirely from his recording of Schumann's original publication of Opus 13.  The first pianist I encountered who experimented with folding any of these variations into the overall structure was Ingrid Fliter;  and at the time she offered this conception of the music in recital, I was perfectly content to let sleeping variations lie.  This week I find myself encountering two approaches to incorporation, the second taking place this Thursday evening in Yuja Wang's recital at Herbst Theatre.
Hsieh decided to play all five of the variations, in the order in which Brahms published them, inserting them all between the eighth and ninth variations.  None of the "appendix" variations have tempo markings;  but they were all quite conducive to the relatively slow and moderate tempos that Hsieh took.  The problem, however, is that they blunted the contrast between the energetic eighth variation and the expressive ninth.  Given how intense so many of these variations are, it makes sense to use them to give the pianist a breather, even if Schumann did not plan for one in the first place;  but lumping them all together seems to trade off Schumann's extended period of high energy for an equally extended period of Eusebius-like introspection that borders on torpid.  Perhaps Hsieh's intention was to prolong the suspense building up to "Ivanhoe's charge" in the final etude;  but there was an insufficient sense of progression as one moved from one "appendix" variation to the next.  Nevertheless, her decision to experiment remains laudable, even if the experiment did not necessarily come out as anticipated;  and it will provide a basis for comparison with Thursday evening's performance.
For the record Wang’s performance had to be postponed because of physical injury;  and, when she performed Opus 13 on her rescheduled date, she omitted all of those “appendix” variations.
This time I was reviewing a recording of a performance by Wolfram Schmitt-Leonardy.  Unlike Hsieh he did not lump all of the “appendix” variations in one place.  The first was inserted between the first and second etudes, the fourth between the fifth and sixth.  The seventh etude was followed by the second “appendix” variation, which was then followed by the fifth;  and the third “appendix” variation followed the ninth etude.  After listening to his clearly well-considered approach, I found myself solidly in Hansen’s camp and siding with Demus:  If they constitute an “appendix,” then, if you must play them, treat them in that way.  Any other approach can only interfere with Schumann’s architectural conception of the work, which has nothing wrong with it (and a lot right with it).  Meanwhile, I have decided to spend some time practicing those additional variations, just to see how they fit under my fingers but with no intentions of ever performing them!

No comments: