Wednesday, November 15, 2023

CPE Bach and Schumann in November’s Second Sunday


Einav Yarden, Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

Einav Yarden.
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Rondo in C minor H. 283—the fourth in his set of Keyboard Sonatas, Free Fantasies, and Rondos Wq. 59—seems to be a favored repertoire item for the Israel-born, Berlin-based pianist Einav Yarden. She included it in her previous Classical Crossroads "Second Sundays at Two" recital (reviewed here), and again she chose it to open her contribution to this year’s series.

I’ve no clear memory of that previous performance, but this time her account struck me as having a just about ideal balance between acknowledging the somberness implicit in the Rondo’s tonality but also fully expressing its whimsical rhythmic capriciousness. Also, Ms. Yarden’s keen observation of its many shifts in dynamic, both subtle and sudden, left little doubt that this late addition to C. P. E. Bach’s vast oeuvre (he was 71 when it was published in 1785) reflected the prevailing early Romantic Sturm und Drang artistic ethos. Perhaps someday she will let us hear other pieces from its parent set.

C. P. E. Bach.
She followed the Rondo with the Arioso con 7 Variazioni in F major H. 54, Wq. 118 No. 4—a leap back of several decades in C. P. E. Bach’s long career. As Ms. Yarden noted in brief remarks between the two items, in 1747 C. P. E. was already branching out in a markedly different musical direction from his illustrious father, Johann Sebastian—then still alive and composing—though this work is conventionally structured, with each variation in two halves respectively of 10 and eight measures, and both halves always repeated. Ms. Yarden subtly enhanced her performance with additional decorations and changes of dynamic, mostly softer, for the repeats.

Clara Wieck (1832).
In April 1838, two years before they were married, the 27-year-old Robert Schumann wrote to Clara Wieck, then 19: “.... Oh! Clara, there is such music in me now, and such beautiful melodies always—Just think! since my last letter, I have finished another whole volume of new things. Kreisleriana I shall call it; you, and thought of you, play the chief part, and I will dedicate it to you—yes, to you and to no-one else—then you will smile so sweetly when you find yourself in it again.—

But… When Schumann published Kreisleriana, Phantasien für Piano-Forte later in 1838 as his Op. 16, the dedication went to “Seinen Freunde Herrn F Chopin” and into this already divided set of influences must be added the work’s title: the “Kreisler” in Kreisleriana was the eccentric fictional musician Johannes Kreisler featured in several books by the polymath writer / composer / artist / critic E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776-1822), a profound influence on early German Romanticism in general and Schumann in particular (who even contrived to die at exactly the same age, 46, as Hoffmann).

Kreisler: sketch by Hoffmann.
Both the imaginary Kreisler and the real-life Robert Schumann were manic-depressives, the two sides of the latter’s nature being characterized by himself as “Florestan” (volatile and passionate) and “Eusebius” (dreamy and introspective). Though Kreisleriana doesn’t follow the earlier Davidsbündlertänze with individual numbers actually being signed “F” and “E”, its eight movements are highly contrasted, with Sehr (very) before the initial marking in almost every case for additional emphasis.

Kreisleriana begins very much in media res, as if a door had been opened suddenly to reveal a whirlwind of activity already under way. Ms. Yarden captured this first movement’s Äusserst bewegt (extremely agitated) nature perfectly, her right hand flying through the teeming motion while her left articulated clearly the underlying harmonic progression in octaves, chords, and hairpin-emphasized single notes.

Robert Schumann in 1839.
Already, however, Schumann hints at an inner dualism within the individual movements, with a pp central section before the whirlwind returns, and this dualism emerges fully in the extensive second movement, marked Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch (very heartfelt and not too fast). The long opening melody builds up from an immediately memorable arching opening phrase, and Ms. Yarden gave a limpid beauty to its several repetitions as a kind of varying ritornello. But two Intermezzi—Sehr lebhaft (very lively), and Etwas bewegter (a little more motion)—forcefully interrupt until the melody re-emerges as a kind of homecoming.

This is short-lived, however, as the third movement, Sehr aufgeregt (very excitedly) surges into earshot, at a compressed piano dynamic this time, with Ms. Yarden inserting barely a pause between it and its predecessor to thus underline the whole work’s essential unity. Again that inner dualism asserts itself with a central Etwas langsamer (somewhat slower) section before the return, and a fortissimo Noch schneller (even faster) coda that was truly torrential in Ms. Yarden’s hands.

E. T. A. Hoffmann: self-portrait.
The next four movements maintain the (very) slow/fast/slow/fast pattern of overall contrast, with Schumann’s fertility of melodic invention never failing him. But his quicksilver mood shifts expressed through constant rhythmic, dynamic, and tempo flexibility create a pervasive sense of unease that Ms. Yarden expertly articulated throughout. And, as with the C. P. E. Bach Arioso, she subtly modified dynamics in some of Kreisleriana’s many marked repeats so as to impart a sense of constant onward progress to the music rather than any taking of literal steps back.

Though the final movement is marked Schnell und spielend (fast and playfully), it maintains the work’s overall minor key tonality, and in Ms. Yarden’s performance the implicit darkness was emphasized by her relatively measured tempo and implacably crisp articulation of its tripping, dotted motion. The central section, far from forming a lighter contrast, is Mit aller kraft (with all power), hammering out the rhythm like a nightmarish keyboard echo of the scherzo of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. The opening returns, but as it wound down to its exhausted ppp end, Ms. Yarden gave it a hollow, haunted quality that reminded one of nothing so much as the Dance of Death at the end of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

After this fine performance of one of Schumann’s greatest piano masterpieces, as skillful in execution as it was responsive to the music’s many-sided content, an encore felt superfluous, but nonetheless Ms. Yarden gave us one, the Sarabande fourth movement of J. S. Bach’s English Suite No. 2 in A minor, BWV 807. The whole recital can be enjoyed for the next month on Vimeo.


Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Torrance, Sunday, November 12, 2023, 2.00 p.m.
Images: The performance: Classical Crossroads; Einav Yarden: Artist website; Clara Wieck, Robert Schumann, C. P. E. Bach, Hoffmann, Kreisler: Wikimedia Commons.

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