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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Fantasy in C Major, op. 17 [34:14]
Kreisleriana, op. 16 [33:29]
Arabesque, op. 18 [6:37]
Yeol Eum Son (piano)
rec. 2017, Leibniz Sal, Congress Centrum, Hanover, Germany
ONYX 4202 [74:26]

Recording is a difficult process. A musician must play the same piece numerous times in pursuit of the “perfect” performance, and results can vary. On this new disc from the pianist Yeol Eum Son, we are faced with recordings that both thrill and frustrate; I suspect that in live performance, Son takes the risks we only occasionally hear here.

To get the negative out of the way - the opening Fantasie (labeled “Fantasy” on the CD), one of the greatest pieces in the piano literature, receives a perfunctory, earthbound rendition. The playing is professional: glossy and technically accomplished. But where is the ardor? Where is the feverish, glowing intensity burned onto every brilliant page of Schumann’s score? Climaxes are minimized, and intimate moments are whispered, sometimes to the point of unintelligibility. The first movement purrs along like a fine motorcar on a smooth highway, and the famous march is played at an impressive clip with little of the brawn one would expect. The last movement drags interminably; you can hear Son carefully counting the note lengths as she trudges through the music. This is a disappointing performance.

The booklet notes—uncredited but presumably written by Son herself—remind us that the first draft ending of the third movement featured a return of the Beethoven An die ferne Geliebte material quoted by Schumann in the first movement, but that Schumann thought better of it and later removed the quote. “It was the right decision,” writes Son, who proceeds to perform the original ending complete with the Beethoven quote! I agree with the notes; the simpler revision is far superior to the original ending. It is a mystery to me why Son chose to offer one view in the notes, then shoot herself (musically-speaking) in the foot.

After the limp Fantasie, what a shock to arrive at Kreisleriana, which Son plays like a woman possessed. The whiplash accents of the first movement seize the attention, and the performance never relents. I want to hear this pianist play the Fantasie! There is a tenderness that captivates in the more relaxed sections, and fierce bite in energetic moments. The abundance of color and passionate shaping remind me of Cortot or Yves Nat. The third movement (“Sehr aufgeregt” or “Very agitated”) features the most impressive articulative clarity I’ve heard in that music. The bizarre final movement is musically comprehensible (finally!) due to Son’s careful attention to Schumann’s printed rhythms, which are often faked by other pianists. This is one of the finest modern recordings of the piece, one to which I will often return.

The Arabesque is competent, but too straightforward for my taste. I miss the beautiful, heartrending rubato of Arthur Rubinstein’s many recordings of the piece.

Richard Masters

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