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First and Last Words
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Variations on the name “ABEGG” op.1 (1829-30) [8:33]
Allegro op.8 (1831) [10:29]
Geistervariationen WoO24 (1854) [11:03]
Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Five Preludes and Fugue (1953-54) [17:25]
Five Aphorisms (1990) [14:10]
Yerin Kim (piano)
No recording details given

Yerin Kim gives us an interesting programme of works by these two composers of the 19th and 20th Centuries respectively, coupling and contrasting works from the very earliest years of their compositional career with their final works.

In the case of Schumann, it is a career that starts and ends with variations. The Variations on the name “ABEGG” were his first published work and comprise a theme followed by five variations (the last two are not marked as variations, just cantabile and finale alla fantasia) just as do the Geistervariationen, completed the day before he was committed to the institution in which he would spend the final two years of his life. The first set very much follows the trend of variations of the time; a theme followed by a few fast variations, a slow movement and then a virtuosic final variation. Of course, this is Schumann, so even in this youthful work the variations are on a higher musical plane than many of the vacuous concoctions that were the norm in the salons of Paris in the early 19th century. Kim is marvellously lyrical in these works and though that doesn't mean she eschews the more virtuoso elements she does bring a poetic charm to them that is endearing. She ably demonstrates that she has the technique to deal with the fast variations but is more faithful to Schumann's tempo markings than some steely-fingered pianists who prefer a race to the finish. The semi-quavers of the finale are played with a delicate touch and a finely-judged sense of rubato.

The Geistervariationen are a more sober affair in that the poetic elements outweigh the virtuoso but it is certainly not a sombre piece, especially considering the mental state that Schumann was in at the time. The theme was inspired by dream visions of angels and spirits and it appears to have comforted Schumann and inspired some beautifully warm, intimate music. There is almost none of the high, filigree passage-work that is such a part of the earlier variations; in its place are richer more contrapuntal textures. Kim makes a good case for this lovely autumnal work and she is a little more fluent in the thicker writing than the other version in my collection, Michael Lewin (Sono Luminus DSL-92168 Review).

Between these two we have the less familiar Allegro, written at roughly the same time as the Abegg variations. This is a curious piece, almost a fantasy, that flitters from mood to mood, now dramatic rhetoric, now a skittish allegro, now a more lyrical section combining contrapuntal writing and nervous dotted rhythms. This is the pattern for the piece and for me the work never sounds settled in the same way that his other works do. Kim plays it convincingly and I can't fault her performance – the piece is actually growing on me.

The contrast in style between Schnittke's youthful and late compositions is much more marked. First, we are treated to the Five Preludes and Fugue written when Schnittke was studying at the Moscow Conservatory; they convey an interesting mix of styles. The opening piece has the feel of a Rachmaninov prélude, a yearning, lyrical melody over an arpeggio accompaniment whilst the second floats stately chords over a simple bass, pastoral and serene excepting the slightly unsettled middle section. The beautifully gentle E minor prélude, fragile and nostalgic, is preceded by a remorseless presto that follows employs the disjointed rhythm of the opening of Chopin's second Sonata, in a barbaric helter-skelter. A funeral march follows with echoes of the opening of Liszt's Funerailles both in parts of its melodic line and the use of low bass; it has an incongruous scherzo-like central section that quickly reverts to the majestic grand chords of the slow march. The set ends with an imposing fugue.

Unlike Schumann, there is no gentle retreat into autumnal richness for Schnittke; his Aphorisms are the most notable different music on the disc. Gone is any trace of youth's optimism, vanished is the post-Rachmaninov Romanticism of the préludes. The language is now atonal, a bleak and dark world of fragmentary melodies, chromatic chorales, hammered chord clusters, sardonic humour quickly quashed and declamatory passages, all taken to the extremes of the keyboard. Schnittke instructs the performer to pair each piece with a poem of their choice by the poet Joseph Brodsky (the work's joint dedicatee with the pianist Alexander Slobodyanik). In concert these would be read before or after each of the pieces; the poems that Kim has chosen are printed in full in the notes. In all these Schnittke works Kim is bold and gripping – the préludes are delicate, lyrical and big-boned by turns. She attacks with faster items with great bravado and clearly relishes the atmospheric other-worldliness and gritty contrasts of the aphorisms. 

I can't say the Aphorisms are altogether my cup of tea but the remainder of the repertoire is engaging and I enjoyed the CD as a whole. Kim's performances are passionate and poetic, she has a stylish turn of phrase and is attuned to the diverse characters found along the way in this thoughtful programme.

Plenty of poetry and fire in this imaginative programme.

Rob Challinor

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