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IV-XXI [In Memoriam]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Variations on an original theme Op.21 No.1 (1857) [16:05]
Three Intermezzi Op.117 (1892) [16:08]
Clara SCHUMANN (1819-1896)
Transcriptions of songs by Robert Schumann
In der Fremde [1:56]
Mit Myrthen und Rosen [3:11]
Mondnacht [3:13]
Widmung [1:51]
Dein Angesicht [2:15]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Theme and variations 'Ghost variations' WoO.24
Variation 5 Ein Letzte Gedanke [2:59]
Johannes BRAHMS
Variations on a theme of Robert Schumann for piano four hands Op.23 (1861) [15:39]
Yi Lin Jiang (piano)
Jacopo Giovannini (piano in Brahms Op.23)
Rec. 2020/21 at Kronenzentrum Bietigheim
ANCLEF 20210421 [63:17]

It is poignant to hear this beautiful music after reading the notes to this CD in which Yi Lin Jiang intersperses touching and ultimately uplifting personal reminiscences of his late mother with notes about the music. In some way all of these works are dedications to lost loves and Yi Lin Jiang has done well to prepare such a rich and varied programme.

The recital is framed by two sets of variations. The Variations on an original theme are the first of two sets that Brahms had published as op.21 and was written in the year after Schumann's death. Two years previously he had written his Variations on a theme of Schumann op.9 using the same theme that Clara Schumann had used for her own variations op.20 – the first Albumblatt from the Bunte Blätter op.99 – partly to console Clara after Robert had been confined to an asylum after his attempt at suicide. The present Variations are Brahms' only variations based on an original theme and this may be connected to his wish to write a set of variations, also with Clara in mind, in which each variation grew more naturally out of the mood of the previous ones rather than having random changes of mood throughout – thus the characteristic left hand of variation two is echoed in the third with a fresh right hand idea and the gradually intensifying triplets of variation 5 become the stormier 6th variation. Jiang leads us through the relative subdued mood of the piece with beautiful tone and a keen ear for the dramatic journey. This continues in the op.117 Intermezzi; the gently halting lilt of the lullaby in no.1, the rich affirmation of the D flat theme and breathless exploratory nature of the second and the carefully graduated intensity of the third.

In another act of homage to his old friend Brahms composed the Variations on a theme of Robert Schumann for piano four hands Op.23 and the personal connection continued for Brahms; once again he had Clara in mind in writing them, giving her another momento of her late husband and offering himself the joy of playing the piece with her. The theme is taken from the Ghost Variations that Schumann was in the process of writing when he threw himself into the Rhine; he claimed to have heard the theme sung by spirits and he may indeed have heard it but it was music that he himself had written several years earlier as the theme of his Violin Concerto's second movement. As a prelude to the Brahms variations Jiang plays an excerpt, the vaguely unnerving variation 5, from the Ghost variations, taken from a live performance. Brahms' Variations were written around the same time as the familiar Handel Variations and Fugue and echoes of the figurations can be heard in this piece, particularly in the fast chordal 3rd variation. Brahms has returned to the more random mood changes that he was moving away from in the op.21 variations and so we have a gigue-like variation followed by a sturdy allegro which in turn gives way to a study in 3rds and 6ths alternating between the players. The emotional heart of the piece is the 4th variation with its stark octaves, drum rolls and intense chromaticism. A brisk allegro in dotted rhythms seems to herald a grand ending but it is the reflective mood of the theme that prevails and brings the work to a peaceful end. Jiang is joined by Jacopo Giovannini for this invigorating and warm-hearted performance.

Sandwiched between these items we hear five Schumann song in transcriptions by Clara Schumann. She wrote these many years after Robert's death and perhaps that time was needed for her to approach these songs, all with such a personal connection and reminder of their relatively short time together. It is not surprising that her approach is very simple and faithful to the originals imposing none of herself into her husband's music; take Widmung for instance which like all the songs here essentially has the vocal line integrated into the accompaniment with minimal, if any change to either. Compare this to the much more familiar transcription by Franz Liszt, a full blown concert work that is equally faithful to the passionate spirit of the original but which has the extravagance of Liszt's huge personality all over it. Jiang plays very sensitively here and though we are always aware of it he doesn't go out of his way to bring the melody to the fore.

Yi Lin Jiang has made a very strong impression on me here. The final Schuman variations are as fine a performance as I can imagine though it is not a piece I am particularly familiar with. However his Brahms solo items are similarly convincingly played and this alongside the relative unfamiliarity of some of the music here makes this an appealing release.

Rob Challinor

Previous review: Dominy Clements

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