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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Solo Music for Piano
Humoreske in B flat major, Op. 20 (1838) [29:36]
Impromptus (10) on a theme by Clara Schumann, Op. 5 (1833) [19:01]
Klavierstücke (7) in the form of Fugues, Op. 126: no 1 (1853) [2:36]
Klavierstücke (7) in the form of Fugues, Op. 126: no 4 in D minor (1853) [2:07]
Klavierstücke (7) in the form of Fugues, Op. 126: no 7 (1853) [4:03]
Phantasiestücke (3) for Piano, Op. 111: no 2 [5:32]
Theme and Variations in E flat major, ‘Geistervariationen’ (1854) [13:02]
Yael Weiss (piano)
rec. September, 2005, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, USA. DDD

‘My thoughts and actions are so absorbed by Art that I am nearly forgetting German. If I could only tell you everything in music, how I should astonish the world by my thoughts…’
For many people Schumann’s words describe the way in which his distinctively mellow and gentle piano music affects the soul - it’s a world in and to itself. The tonality, colour and structure are highly personal rooms, retreat into which begins as a pleasure and ends… as a need.
Schumann’s piano music is also music of deceptive simplicity. Thus it benefits from sensitivity and thoughtfulness in performance. Yael Weiss is a young Israeli American pianist in her mid-thirties. Her teachers have included Leon Fleisher and Richard Goode and she has other attractive credentials. She’s played with several major orchestras worldwide and is committed to intimate music-making - a member of the trio, Sequenza, with Mark Kaplan (her husband) and Clancy Newman, Weiss has also held several academic positions in North American music faculties.
The early and late Schumann pieces on this CD, which are not all often performed, have been chosen by Weiss specifically to highlight Schumann’s intimately personal purposes in communicating joy and tragedy. At the core of this repertoire is the ‘Humoreske’, which reaches for an almost improvisatory style. Its context is not so much that of  ‘humour’ in the modern sense of the word as ‘contrast’ - the usage of novelist Jean Paul, who meant so much to Schumann. It’s the most substantial work on the CD at nearly half an hour, and is played without sentimentality by Weiss.
Indeed to Weiss Schumann is more of a classical composer than a romantic. Her tempi are businesslike - though for emphasis slow at times. In the second (ironically, ‘Hastig’) movement of the ‘Humoreske’, they flow almost to a halt; while the playing in the next movement could be middle period Beethoven with a kind of relentlessness not usually associated with Schumann’s more melancholic temperament. So too in the fourth, ‘Innig’, as if the pianist were improvising - keen to get one idea out of the way as another occurs. As well as conveying mild hurry, Weiss’s playing does leave the listener curious about what comes next. Contrasts indeed.
But then the more tightly-rendered Klavierstücke are tackled in the same manner - a kind of forced relaxation. One’s attention is drawn more to the frankly almost wayward momentum (the end of the second, ‘Lebhaft’, verges on the faltering) than to the melody. Evenness of dynamic is a characteristic of Schumann - or should be. But such movements as the ‘Impromptus’ fourth don’t so much heighten and lessen tension by changes in attack as raise eyebrows: there seems to be little reason for wrenching the music in this way. The playing - especially in the ‘Impromptus’ - is at times almost shrill; it masks Schumann’s poetry.
Of course another presence stalks the music (particularly the early ‘Impromptus’ - one of which is on a theme of hers - and even more so the late E flat major ‘Theme and Variations’, the so-called ‘Ghost Variations’ (which only appeared in print in 1941): the ghost of Clara Wieck, the love of Schumann’s life.
Only in what is perhaps the most quintessentially Schumannesque work here, these ‘Geistvariationen’ (also his very last composition), does Weiss’ playing really reveal and explore those depths of feeling (be they misery or ‘derangement’) which the composer knew. Written at the time of his suicide attempt, they were claimed by Schumann to arrive from another world. The great gift of an accomplished Schumann interpreter is to take us to that other world. And in this case to do that by accentuating bathos in the context of music intentionally reduced in breadth. Here - and in the final Phantasiestücke - Weiss will best please Schumann lovers. By relaxing.
It’s an uneven performance, then. The sleeve-notes are written by Weiss herself. They provide a helpful commentary on the affective aspects of how and what Schumann communicates to the pianist. In particular she feels that playing his music gives the performer licence to exercise an almost covert imaginative imprint (a special communication between maker and practitioner) on the music - the result of the composer’s measured and conscious relinquishing of control. This might explain some of the idiosyncrasies to be heard on this disc. But it won’t please every Schumann devotee.
Mark Sealey

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