Thursday, May 11, 2023

Edith Knox Competition Winner Beguiles on "First Friday"

Cameron Akioka at First Lutheran Church, Torrance.

Cameron Akioka, First Fridays at First!~fff, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

The young Californian pianist Cameron Akioka must surely have been a worthy winner of the Peninsula Symphony Orchestra’s 50th Annual Edith Knox Performance Competition, if her Classical Crossroads, Inc., debut recital given before an invited audience at First Lutheran Church, Torrance, on the first Friday of May was anything to judge by.

Her skillfully chosen program comprised two major keyboard masterpieces from the 18th and 19th centuries—respectively J. S. Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor, BWV 903 and Robert Schumann’s Études symphoniques in C-sharp minor, Op. 13—separated by a 20th century vignette, Debussy’s Poissons d’or (Goldfish), the third and last of his Images, Deuxième Série, L. 111. This, like its companions, she played with impressive aplomb and virtuosity, and entirely from memory.

Monument to J. S. Bach in
Köthen, where he probably
composed the Chromatic
Fantasia and Fugue.
Any listeners accustomed to the severer tones of the harpsichord in Bach might initially have been taken aback by the freedom and spontaneity of Ms. Akioka’s treatment of BWV 903’s initial Fantasia section, which seemed to reach forward out of its Baroque origins towards an overt Romanticism. However, the ensuing, quite “straight” account of the Fugue only confirmed what the Fantasia had already hinted—that as well as her deliquescent fluency in all those 32nd-note scalic runs Ms Akioka also evinced masterly clarity in her articulation of bass lines, aided by finely controlled and focused pedaling.

All her many pianistic skills were comprehensively brought to bear on Schumann’s "Symphonic Studies", which had a compositional and publishing history complex enough to influence unavoidably any performer’s approach to the work. Originally sketched in 1834-35 as a set of more-or-less free variations on a theme supplied by a Baron von Fricken, the work was variously revised and added to, and some elements of it set aside, before Schumann settled upon a final form for publication in 1837.

Schumann's 1834 manuscript sketch of the Fricken theme for his Études symphoniques.

This comprised Fricken’s theme followed by 12 “études”—still essentially free variations on it except for the last, a substantial “rondo finale” based on an entirely different theme that Schumann drew from the opera Der Templer und die Jüdin by Heinrich Marschner (1795-1861). This might account in part for the “symphonic” epithet in the title, though an earlier discarded title that these were “Symphonische Etüden im Orchesterkarakter for Piano…” indicates that the orchestral medium rather than symphonic form per se had primacy in Schumann’s mind.

Lithograph of Schumann in 1839.
It’s also worth noting that the other half of that early putative title read “…von Florestan und Eusebius,” the contrasting sides that Schumann perceived of his own personality: Eusebius introspective and melancholy; Florestan the opposite, extrovert and excitable. The expressive markings for the published étudesI: Un poco più vivo, II: marcate il Canto, III: Vivace, IV: Allegro marcato, V: Scherzando, VI: Agitato, VII: Allegro molto, VIII: Sempre marcatissimo, IX: Presto possibile, X: Con energia sempre, XI: Andante espressivo, XII: Allegro brilliante—clearly indicate which of the Florestand and Eusebius aspects is uppermost in them.

In 1852 Schumann brought out a second edition (now titled Etüden in Form von Varitionen) that omitted études III and IX and revised the finale, but then in 1861 a third, posthumous, edition appeared, which reinstated them but retained the finale revisions. To muddy the waters yet further, in 1890 Brahms published the five études that Schumann had cut from his original 1834-35 conception as a supplement in the collected edition of Schumann’s complete works. In their expansive, lyrical nature, these are much more characteristic of “Eusebius.”

So what is a performer to do? While some commentators have rather sternly warned against what they see as compromising Schumann’s definitive vision of the work as published in 1837, it's quite common nowadays to broaden its expressive range by interspersing those 12 mostly energetic “Florestan” études with the five originally discarded “Eusebian” ones, and this was Ms. Akioka’s solution.

Her placing of them within the sequence was as sensitively thought-out as her playing, and both concept and execution can be enjoyed on the recording captured from Classical Crossroads' livestream (click on the image above), where her own comments on each of the 18 movements can also be read. If there’s a criticism to be made, it’s that she cut over a dozen repeats (most of the movements have each half repeated), presumably to curtail the work’s overall length for “First Friday’s” format, and to these ears a few of the études were thus rendered just too brief to be fully effective.

With that small proviso (I wonder whether Ms. Akioka would consider playing as an alternative sometimes only the 1837 set, and with all repeats?), this was an outstandingly enjoyable and rewarding recital, and it’s to be hoped that she will grace many future South Bay program listings. Meanwhile, she will be performing her chosen selection for the Knox Competition—Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4—with the Peninsula SO on Sunday, June 25.


“First Fridays at First!~fff,” First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, May 4, 2023.
Images: The performance: Classical Crossroads; Composers: Wikimedia Commons; Schumann manuscript: Yale University Library.

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