Pianist Sasaki Tackles Clara Schumann

obsedian-cover

OBSIDIAN / C. SCHUMANN: Scherzo in C min. 3 Preludes & Fugues, Op. 16. Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, Op. 20. 3 Romances for Violin & Piano. Soirées Musicales: Notturno / BRAHMS: Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann / GRAFE: Obsidian Liturgy / Mika Sasaki, pianist; Petteri Iivonen, violinist / Yarlung YAR52635

This fairly extensive tribute to Clara Schumann includes several pieces by her with which I was unfamiliar, such as the 3 Preludes and Fugues and the Romances for Violin and Piano, although in terms of style and musical syntax they are not terribly surprising to anyone who is familiar with her particular style. Despite her marriage to Robert Schumann, Clara always seemed to be much more strongly influenced by their mutual friend Frydryk Chopin, and this is as evident in the opening Scherzo as in the other pieces. Just think of her as the Chopin equivalent of W.F. Bach to his father J.S. as one who based much, but not all, of their aesthetic on their models. Oddly, however, the Preludes and Fugues are a mixed musical metaphor, the Preludes sounding like Chopin and the Fugues like Bach.

Now, this is not to say that her music is poorly constructed or uninteresting. On the contrary, Clara’s musical acumen was so finely developed that she literally absorbed music like a sponge; even as a teenager, before she married Robert Schumann, her recitals were highly praised by critics, particularly for her performances of Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata. Thus Clara Wieck (her maiden name) had quite a reputation as an interpreter before she composed a single phrase.

Because if this, I have always felt that the majority of modern pianists who play her work approach it too daintily. Surely, the bold artist noted for the Appassionata Sonata would not have garnered the praise of such pianistic lions as Franz Liszt. Happily, Mika Sasaki strikes a happy medium between sensitivity of phrasing and boldness of attack. Her ton is rich and full with a wide range of dynamics and a judicious use of pedal.

In the Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, Clara uses a brief F-sharp minor piece from Robert’s Bunte Blätter, which pianist Sasaki claims was based on the “Clara motif, the notes C-sharp/B/A/G-sharp/A,” but how these people imagined a B as an L and G-sharp as an R, I have no idea. Nonetheless, it gave her a chance to move away a bit from the aesthetic of Chopin, although the work of the Polish composer can still be heard as an influence on her variants, particularly in the rich chording with a moving bass line as in the fifth variant, which bears a resemblance to Chopin’s “Revolutionary” Etude.

The first interlude we have on this disc is Johannes Brahms’ own Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, written on the same theme in 1854, the year in which Robert attempted suicide. This is a longer and more substantial piece, running 16 variations instead of only seven. I found it interesting to hear Sasaki’s syncopated and somewhat percussive approach to the second variation, which enlivened the music considerably, but many of these variations are in slow or moderate tempos, quite different from Clara’s own. The fifth and sixth variations are almost violent outbursts, the Allegro capriccioso marking of the former misleading as there is no capriciousness in it!

The Three Romances for Violin and Piano are sort of a cross between Chopin and Mendelssohn, another composer whose work Clara was familiar with. This is decidedly lightweight music, not in the same league with her other pieces on this CD, but the music is charming if charm is what you like.

Interest attaches itself to the title work on this CD, Obsedian, written for Sasaki by her friend Max Grafe to honor the 120th anniversary of Clara’s death and the 160th of Robert. As Sasaki describes it in the booklet,

The piece unfolds through a sequence of emotionally dramatic musical events: an “Invocation” is followed by a ritualistic “Canticle” that builds into a fervent and obsessive “Incantation,” culminating in a cataclysmic explosion. After some seconds of silence, a vertiginous “Trance” of left-hand ostinatos sound from the distance, followed by a climactic “Peal” of strong, harsh bells. The “Benedictus” finally creates a sense of resolution, despite its haunting overtones, and finally a desolate “Ite, missa est” concludes the liturgy.

It’s a very interesting piece, to my ears the highlight of this album. The adventurous quality of the composition has some affinity to Robert Schumann, who has always been noted for his unexpected turns of phrase and emotional outbursts, although Grafe definitely has his own style. One might best describe it as “modernistic Romanticism,” as it is filled with an almost explosive outpouring of emotion yet is contained in a vessel of bitonality. What impressed me most, however, was Grafe’s sense of structure: he never loses sight of where his music is going, mood shifts or no mood shifts, and his grasp of mood is equally outstanding. To a certain extent, this piece doesn’t really “fit” into this disc, tribute or no tribute, but I loved it.

We end with Clara’s Notturno from the Soirées Musicales, once again in the musical world of Chopin with a twist. The melodic line sounds very much like Chopin’s famous Nocturne in D-flat, only with variants and twists of phrase that keep moving it away from the familiar melody. The middle section, in a brisker tempo, almost sounds like a barcarolle.

Producer Bob Attiyeh spends a great deal of time in the booklet describing the microphone setup, SonoruS Holographic Imaging and “5 Channel Surround Sound,” but since I reviewed this album from mp3 downloads on my computer I heard none of it. Such is the fate of a poor reviewer who cannot afford to buy the records she reviews, but I will take them at their word. One thing I did find interesting is that al of these were one-take performances with no editing.

Overall, a good album for fans of Clara Wieck Schumann with an interesting twist from Max Grafe!

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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