Carolin Widmann: Mendelssohn/Schumann (ECM New Series 2427)

Widmann Mendelssohn

Carolin Widmann
Mendselssohn/Schumann

Carolin Widmann violin, direction
Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Recorded July 2014, Festspielhaus Baden-Baden
Engineer: Rainer Maillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: August 26, 2016

Until now, violinist Carolin Widmann has reexamined mostly chamber territories on ECM. For this disc, recorded in 2014 and released two years later, she leads the Chamber Orchestra of Europe as both director and soloist in a program of two marquis-worthy concertos by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy and Robert Schumann.

The opening theme of Mendelssohn’s Opus 64, composed in 1844, in addition to being one of the most recognizable in the Romantic violin repertoire, shines from Widmann’s interpretative sun like the dawn. What follows in this monumental movement, marked “Allegro molto appassionato,” is more than fiery sermon of the bow, but a full narrative rich with character development, conflict, and hyperrealism. As Jürg Stenzl writes in his liner notes, Mendelssohn was caught between something of a rock and hard place, unsure of whether to continue in the virtuosic fashion of Paganini or follow the orchestral persuasion of Beethoven. If anything, he struck an unprecedented balance between the two, allowing the soloist to shine while also giving the orchestra something lyrical and texturally relevant to say. The central movement—an Andante leading into a transitional Allegretto—is a lyrical bridge to the famous finale, across delicate leaps of intuition turn into robust statements of purpose. Playfulness undergirds every chromatic arc and emboldens Widmann’s benchmark performance with a subtle combination of grit and fluidity. That each of these three movements is shorter than the last is indicative of a distilling approach, whereby the composer peels away one unnecessary layer after another until an unblemished fruit remains.

CW
(Photo credit: Lennard Rühle)

Schumann’s concerto of 1853, unlike Mendelssohn’s widely heralded masterpiece, went unpublished until 1937, dismissed as it was along with his late works as insubstantial. How much of that perception was due to musicological analysis and how much to a growing mythos around his mental downfall is difficult to quantify. Following in the immediate wake of his Opus 31 Fantasy, the concerto is both a return to form and an eschewing of it. If Mendelssohn’s first movement was a short story, then Schumann’s is a novella. Yet despite it gargantuan form, taking up nearly 16 minutes of duration in the present performance, it leaves more than enough room for the listener to find solace, reflection, and understanding. And despite its many colors, there’s a certain trustworthiness to its flow, as emphasized by Widmann’s choices of tempo and dynamics. The second movement, designated “Langsam” (slow), nevertheless speaks with urgency, while the restrained third dances but always keeps one foot on the ground. With bolder, more jagged lines, Schumann expands his vocabulary in and through the score. Widmann’s translations thereof make it understandable in any language.

Schumann: The Violin Sonatas (ECM New Series 2047)

 

Robert Schumann
The Violin Sonatas

Carolin Widmann violin
Dénes Várjon piano
Recorded August 2007 at Auditorio Radio Svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“Maybe Schumann, as opposed to so many other composers, really is the one whose black dots on white paper represent the least that is actually to be said.”
–Carolin Widmann

Musicologists and historians alike often paint Robert Schumann as a tragic figure. The mental degeneration of this prominent composer has become a prototypical example of the genius in decline and of the ineffability of humanity’s most creative energies. Admittedly, I have been guilty of this characterization myself. But when we hear a recording like this, all that myth-making goes straight out the window. These sonatas are among Schumann’s final works, the first two having been written in 1851 and the third in 1853, and are no less engaging for it.

Sonate Nr. 1 für Pianoforte und Violine in a-Moll, op.105
This is an absolutely glorious sonata. The piano parts are alive with ideas and seem to come in waves. The second movement is one of Schumann’s most questioning, cautiously approaching the knowledge it seeks before growing into confidence. The third movement catches us almost unawares with its colorful changes in rhythm and atmosphere. This is the most eclectic portion of the sonata, a beautifully synchronized braid of instrumental forces. After the dainty, lively introduction, suspicions loom threateningly over the finale’s exuberant communion until they crumble into piles of declamatory dust. Only then do we realize the goal no longer means anything, now that it’s unobstructed.

Sonate Nr. 3 für Violine und Pianoforte in a-Moll, WoO 2
Schumann’s third sonata was withheld by his wife Clara for years before it was ever heard. Its central position in the album’s program isn’t an apology, but a gesture perhaps meant to ensure that it be taken seriously. The opening piano thumps like a nervous heartbeat. Its balance is so fine that one false move could easily upset it, but the virtuosity of our duo keeps it perfectly intact, so that we may admire it from every angle and with every assurance of safety. The second movement evolves in retrograde motion to an arousing end, after which the piano’s bass note lingers beyond the violin’s curtailed exultation. The third movement climbs determinedly, aware of its own lightness, its many open paths. The cascading pianism here renders the music into a raging river. Like a salmon swimming upstream, the violin must struggle with all its might to get to where it’s going. Because its life is determined by that very struggle, it relies solely on the challenge of the current.

Sonate Nr. 2 für Violine und Pianoforte in d-Moll, op. 121
Also known as the “Grand Sonata,” Schumann’s second shows off its complex unity at every turn. The opening movement is an epic journey, finding its resolution no fewer than three times before bowing out, while the sonata’s remainder combs through the populous landscape of human interaction. The lesson: in agreement there is no unity, but only the semblance of disparate voices blending into one, whereas true unity is achieved in keeping those voices separate, sharing the awareness of an internal bond that can never be made externally aware.

Widmann and Várjon both see much in the way of modern sensibilities in these sonatas, bringing their progressive approach to every nuance therein. Their dynamic control is so effortlessly realized, they never manage to lose the energetic thread that binds them, even in the quietest moments. Widmann intentionally plays on open strings whenever possible, allowing the rich sonority of her instrument to ring through with an almost harsh beauty, while Várjon take full advantage of the studio’s acoustics to further flesh out the piano’s inherent resonance. If these sonatas are pieces of a larger puzzle, then these two fabulous musicians have foregone the corner pieces and worked their way from the center to the margins.

Carolin Widmann/Simon Lepper: Phantasy of Spring (ECM New Series 2113)

 

Phantasy of Spring

Carolin Widmann violin
Simon Lepper piano
Recorded October and December 2006 at Kölner Funkhaus
Engineer: Stefan Hahn
Executive Producer: Harry Vogt
Co-production ECM/WDR

In order to approach this album, we might ask ourselves: What is spring? While it is popularly associated with rebirth, if not a certain rise in sexual energy and interest, spring is also a prime season of mischief, one in which creatures great and small awaken from their slumber and do their best to placate their raging hunger. And just what does this have to do with this album’s diverse program? Precisely this: the above interpretations are the result of socially bound, and therefore limited, understandings of nature. The four composers represented in this program, I think, understood this in each his own way. And so, while these pieces may seem on the surface to be at most tangentially connected, they are in fact bound by a fearless approach to fallacy.

Morton Feldman’s Spring of Chosroes (1977) is an ideal opener in this regard. While it is the sparest, it suffers no lack of density. The aired spaces are gravid, deeply informed by Feldman’s idiosyncratic sense of time and the performances of our two musicians. Composer Bunita Marcus offers the following insight into the title of Feldman’s enigmatic piece:

The Spring of Chosroes was a sumptuous carpet reputed to have been made for the Sassanian King Chosroes I (sixth-century A.D.). Woven with silk, gold, silver and rare stones, the carpet depicted a garden akin to Paradise. The image of this legendary rug remained with Feldman throughout the composition, inspiring the isolated “gems” of sound, the translucent, interwoven harmonic timbres, and suggesting the form of the work.

This knowledge provides us with a fertile avenue through which to approach its sounds. While Feldman’s chamber pieces have often been laced with a charming sort of regularity, in Spring we find this regularity thwarted in favor of a highly stylized form of variation. By “variation” I mean not to imply the presence of any central theme, but use it in the sense of a degree of change: we are simply pointing our microphones to the winds and capturing the first fourteen minutes of melody that come along. Recording engineer Stefan Hahn is delicately attuned to the instruments in his first ECM endeavor. He gives Carolin Widmann a wide spread, placing her pizzicatos into markedly different spaces than their surrounding notes, thereby leaving a trail of musical breadcrumbs for the patient listener to follow. Widmann herself draws out some of the purest high notes I have ever heard from the instrument as she navigates Feldman’s vast array of meter changes (270 in a score of 388 bars) with apparent ease. At certain points Simon Lepper hits the uppermost keys to produce a hollow percussive sound, as if in foil to the violin’s subtle clarity. Clearly, however, this is no conversation in the way that most violin sonatas are. Marcus again:

Even when one instrument plays alone, we do not get the customary impression that the other is waiting to reply. Rather, Feldman is choosing to turn an ear to one instrument, then to the other; and at times we hear both together. It is through this selective listening that Feldman paces the unfolding dialogue.

Thus, what appears dialogic is really just a trick of shifting perspectives. Feldman’s music, while always provocative in its subtle ways, feels more tongue-in-cheek and blatantly contradictory here. Feldman was always adept at peeling away the skin of “academic” music and trying to see what may be lurking behind it, cowering in a corner of its own making. The music puts me in mind of a large, gangly, and awkward creature that has forgotten its way home, but which at the same time possesses such intoxicating beauty as to befuddle anyone it asks for directions.

The opening bars of the 1950 Sonate für Violine und Klavier by Bernd Alois Zimmermann act as a launching pad for an invigorating first movement of Bartókian dimensions. The second movement, though filled with fluttering high notes, is a rather brooding affair and lays its patchwork carefully. The final movement is an exercise in urgent virtuosity, ending with a most unforgettable trill and flourish, as if signing an enormous document with a quill of sound. Lepper works the piano through considerable changes, each of which is traceable back to its originary big bang, while Widmann breathes life into every dance of this spectacular sonata.

Even more erratic, and seemingly uninterested in resolution, is Arnold Schönberg’s opus 47, the Phantasy for violin with piano accompaniment of 1949, which began as a piece for solo violin to which he later added piano accompaniment. As one of his last compositions, the narrative trajectory of Phantasy veers into as many turns as the violin can allow. Tones seem to pull at one another, wrenching a tortured sort of melody from the realm of possibility. The piece works in clusters, an amalgam of “micro-compositions” that achieve unity only by virtue of existing on a printed score, of having a beginning and an end.

With Iannis Xenakis’s Dikhthas (1979), we immediately know we are in uncomfortable territory. The violin dances in circles, skirting the piano’s turgid interior like a mad prisoner. Moments of agreement are few and far between; moments of disagreement do no justice to the darkness; and separations are a given. Yet the piece isn’t as fatalistic as one would think. Like an overt camera zoom in a melodramatic film, the overuse of glissandi demonstrates the instability of note values and draws a jagged line under the piece’s contrived dual identity. Xenakis was one of the twentieth century music’s greatest game theorists. This impassioned performance allows us to experience one of his most intimate strategies as if for the first time.

Even if you have heard any or all of these pieces before, I guarantee these interpretations will give you much food for thought. Widmann’s incredibly fluid approach partners well with Lepper’s more pointillist one, and together they forge as vast a sound palette as one could imagine from a duo. By turns opaque and resplendent, this is a demanding album that should reap great benefits for the repeat listener.