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Beyond Schumann / Michael Gees

Schumann,R. / Gees,Michael
Release Date: 08/13/2013 
Label:  Challenge   Catalog #: 72597   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Robert Schumann
Performer:  Michael Gees
Number of Discs: 2 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SCHUMANN/GEES Symphonic Etudes , op. 13 . Kinderszenen , op. 15. Kreiseriana , op, 16. Waldszenen , op. 82: “Vogel als Prophet” Michael Gees (pn) CHALLENGE 72597 (2 CDs: 96:50)

Michael Gees strums through the opening theme of the Read more style="font-style:italic">Symphonic Etudes , leaving out the repeat, adding a grace note here, a rolled chord there, signaling that this will be no ordinary Schumann performance.

Entitled Beyond Schumann, this unusual recording offers more or less complete performances of the well-known works listed in the headnote, with interpolations of Gees’s original music. Typically, he’ll introduce an individual Schumann movement first, and then add his own music, often returning to the original to conclude. The added music relates to Schumann’s in different ways, and sounds rather carefully planned in its phrase structure and overall proportions, suggesting that what may have originated as improvisation has been refined, practiced, and perhaps even notated for the recording. (I’m guessing here; it’s possible that Gees’s on-the-spot compositional skills are greater than I give him credit for.)

The Symphonic Etudes is structured as a theme and variations, so each etude already offers Schumann’s own ingenious elaborations on the theme. This puts Gees at a disadvantage; his music, based on the same recurring harmonic progression and phrase structure, can’t avoid competing with Schumann’s. Hearing his first few additions to the work, which stick fairly closely to Schumann’s melodic content, I feared that a series of George Winston-style noodlings were in store, but luckily Gees’s manner is much less banal or self-indulgent than that. He tends to employ sequences and repeating accompaniment figures, but his musical reactions to Schumann’s music are often pleasingly unpredictable. When he gets going, his harmony and texture often veer into Rachmaninoff territory, and by the very end of the piece, Gees lets his inner Gershwin take over, to awkward effect.

Of the three larger Schumann works here, Kinderszenen ’s miniatures respond best to having music added, and there’s freshness and charm in Gees’s take on each piece. For example, his short prelude and postlude to “Kuriose Geschichte” are concise, witty, and unexpected, and there’s wisdom in his choosing to not actually play the work’s best-known movement, “Träumerei.” Instead, he creates a gently understated, almost pop-style reworking of its essential shape. Schumann’s syncopated rhythms in “Ritter von Steckenpferd” provide a point of departure for what becomes an infectiously jazzy take-off.

In Kreisleriana , where Schumann’s forms sometimes have an improvisatory feel to begin with, Gees’s additions sometimes ramble, but are occasionally quite clever. I like his changes to the scherzo-like fifth movement’s melody, and the chords that he adds to Schumann’s odd, appended ending to the stormy no. 8, but by expanding each of Kreiseriana ’s eight sections—in effect, padding them out—Gees’s music detracts from the abrupt contrasts in mood that are perhaps the work’s most striking characteristic. (The longest infusion of Gees in proportion to Schumann happens in the “Vogel als Prophet” from Waldszenen in which the bird seems to forecast the eerie, disembodied style of Prokofiev’s slowest music.)

Listeners may be familiar with Gees as an expert Lieder accompanist, usually heard with Christoph Prégardien. As a soloist, I’m not convinced that he demonstrates the full range of touch that would make me want to hear him play these pieces straight. He uses the damper pedal very liberally, which, along with the very reverberant recorded sound, minimizes contrasts in articulation. (It’s not until the staccato fifth variation in the Symphonic Etudes that one hears an unpedaled rest.) Gees takes some of Schumann’s slowest music faster than usual, and some of the faster, nervier movements slower, but what I took at first to be a casual approach toward Schumann’s extremes, I have come to perceive as affectionate poetic license. Still, the piano playing would be better if it had more precision and detail.

Purists will probably consider what Gees does to be a desecration of some of Schumann’s greatest music, but, on repeated hearings, I find myself at least partially won over. Gees argues in the booklet notes that pianists have lost the ability to play this highly subjective music with the free spirit that Schumann intended, let alone to play around with it as he does. (Listening to Alfred Cortot’s magnificent Schumann recordings from the 1920s and 1930s proves his point: one can hear the spontaneity that has been lost after almost a century of recordings focused on perfect execution). There’s something liberating about the alternative that Gees offers, and the palpable love of Schumann expressed here.

FANFARE: Paul Orgel Read less

Works on This Recording

1. Symphonic Etudes for Piano, Op. 13 by Robert Schumann
Performer:  Michael Gees (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1837/1852; Germany 
Notes: Improvisation based on this work. 
2. Kreisleriana, Op. 16 by Robert Schumann
Performer:  Michael Gees (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1838; Germany 
Notes: Improvisation based on this work. 
3. Kinderszenen, Op. 15 by Robert Schumann
Performer:  Michael Gees (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1838; Germany 
Notes: Improvisation based on this work. 
4. Waldszenen, Op. 82: no 7, Vogel als Prophet by Robert Schumann
Performer:  Michael Gees (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1848-1849; Germany 
Notes: Improvisation based on this work. 

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