The celebrated American pianist Ann Schein closed out this year’s UNCG Focus on Piano Literature, “Two Great Romantics: Mendelssohn and Schumann,” in the School of Music’s Recital Hall Saturday night. Playing before a large crowd, Schein’s forceful and subtly nuanced playing was certainly one of the highlights of the three-day event, which takes place every two years on the UNCG campus.
Schein warmed up the audience with Schumann’s 1838-39 "Arabeske," a multi-sectional composition that is by turns gentle and stern. Especially impressive was the pianist’s ability to revel in the transitional sections, which often hold the different parts together by a thin thread.
Schein has long been associated with legendary performances of certain pieces, and Schumann’s 1837 Davidsbündlertänze (“Dances of the Band of David”) is one. It might help to know a little about this composition to understand some of the problems of interpretation.
Schumann was a writer as well as a composer, and he certainly had his share of mental issues. In fact, to many, his existence has come to represent the quintessential bi-polar, manic-depressive artist. In this work (and in others) he calls forth David and “his band” to slay the culturally-barren Philistines. Two of his most famous personae are the extroverted, mercurial Florestan and the shy, inward-looking Eusebius. These two characters (although not named explicitly in this work) provide the means to understand the rapidly changing emotional landscape revealed in the 18 sections that comprise the piece.
According to Jeremy Siepmann’s liner notes to Vladimir Ashknenazy’s London recordings of the complete Schumann piano works, the rapid changes between the movements are “original to the point of madness . . . and . . . Schumann took his pleasures as seriously as his sorrows . . . which gives his music its unique admixture of immediacy and elusiveness.” All that to say it is an incredibly difficult task to perform this 35-minute work with cohesion and spontaneity. But that is exactly what Schein accomplished.
Displaying phenomenal technique, the pianist easily handled the treacherous octaves, the finger-tangling passagework, and the cascades of arpeggios. But equally impressive was her ability to express the most intimate and personal ruminations in the score. The way in which she so winningly brought the two together is a feat few pianists can match.
The second half of the program was given over to the ever-popular Trio in D minor by Mendelssohn, with Schein on the piano, her husband Earl Carlyss on violin, and Darrett Adkins on cello. This work, written by a composer not quite 30 years old, is full of Romantic fervor that is cast in a classical framework, thereby proving that sometimes one can successfully put new wine in old wineskins.
The best chamber music takes place when all musicians appear to be friends having a conversation, and that was certainly true in this performance. Indeed, all three have worked together at the Aspen Music Festival and other venues — it was clear from the outset that they enjoyed playing together.
The four movements are chock-full of lyric melodies that are shared by all three instruments. The composer was especially generous in his offering the cello the first shot to announce many of the tunes, and Adkins brought forth these tunes with flowing grace. Carlyss, who was a member of the Juilliard String Quartet for twenty years, certainly knows his way around chamber music, and his playing brought out the melody as well as accompanied his colleagues in good style.
Schein dominated the musical proceedings, sometimes overshadowing the other two. Her energetic and assertive playing certainly made for lots of sound and passion, and her refined sense of melodic construction was ever-present.
I suppose that all chamber ensembles strive after a particular sound. To this listener, it seemed that Adkins preferred a rather steely sound as opposed to a lush, warm one. Carlyss seemed to be more self-contained than extroverted. And Schein’s piano playing provided ample pizzazz and sparkle to the performance.