Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Variations on a Theme by R. Schumann (1854)
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Piano Sonata No 2 in B minor, Op 61 (1943)
From: 11 Chorale Preludes, Op 122 (1896) (arr. F. Busoni)
No 10 in A minor, ‘Herlich tut mich verlangen’
No.11 in F major, ‘O Welt, ich muss dich lassen’
Orion Weiss (piano)
rec. 2018, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, USA
FIRST HAND RECORDS FHR128 
Arc I of this three-disc series was generally well received by David McDade (review). Each programme is themed, with Arc I being ‘From Before World War I’ and Arc II ‘From During World War I, World War II, During Times of Grief.’ Arc III will be after the wars, and includes Schubert Debussy and Brahms. If you like one you are almost certainly going to want the whole artistically ambitious set, which is good marketing.
There is a melancholy feel to some of Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin, and as Orion Weiss points out in his booklet notes, this is a reflection on “the dance sand spinning-wheels of the lost past... [grasping] at the bygone refinement and grace longed for in the new century.” Ravel had some terrible experiences during WWI, and his grief on the loss of his mother at this time is also associated with the piece, but Weiss doesn't hold back on the livelier dances, and this is a nicely balanced performance with a luminous touch in, for instance, the Menuet.
Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by R. Schumann was written when the composer was only 20 years old, but appeared amidst the emotional turmoil of Robert Schumann's attempted suicide and Brahms's affection for Clara. Weiss brings out the “tumbling logic of emotion” in this intense sequence, with at times an exploration of might arguably have been Brahms’ observations of Robert Schumann's troubled mind. There is a pointillism and rhythmic instability in some of the variations that he projects very well indeed, the plunging emotions of others creating all of the extremes of contrast you need in this work, without sounding wilful or eccentric at the root of it all.
Shostakovich's Piano Sonata No 2 is a tremendous work and very much a wartime piece, inhabiting the atmosphere of a time in which fear under the rule of Stalin and intense suffering during the Nazi siege of Leningrad were all ongoing. The central Largo is heartbreakingly skeletal here, a dark intermezzo between the violence in the first movement and the “obsessive and devastating set of continuous variations” in the finale. Weiss's staccato touch gives both drama and transparency to climaxes, delivering maximum contrast against Shostakovich's fuller sonorities and bringing out the essential inner voices of this movement.
Emotionally drained by this point, we are offered comfort at the end by some of Brahms’ Chorale Preludes, Op 122 for organ, but very effectively played here in transcriptions by Busoni. These settings of old Lutheran hymns were written at the end of Brahms’s life, and form a suitable farewell to a well curated and superbly performed and recorded programme.
Comparisons can of course be made to all of the performances here. I had a listen to Barry Douglas's Brahms Variations on a Theme by R. Schumann (review) and was intrigued to hear the differences in the ways he brings out the lyrical elements in the music and somehow inhabits the Schumann song idiom more, where Weiss is a touch more ‘modern’ and forward looking. Konstantin Scherbakov’s Naxos recording of the Shostakovich Second Piano Sonata (review) also highlights different aspects of the work but, perhaps due to the nature of the recording, sounds a bit less substantial than Weiss, who gives greater weight and space to that final movement. These are often subtle differences and are not implied as a criticism of either, but in the end what we are looking at here is Orion Weiss’s journey rather than a recital over which the bones need to be raked. As he writes in the booklet, “in this combination of works I have tried to follow that paths these great composers walked in their own grief. Their tracks lead us from death back towards life, from horror to hope.”
Published: November 24, 2022