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“15” – Stuttgart. Piano Recital. Herbert Schuch

Just back from the Julian Rachlin Festival in Dubrovnik mid-September, I found myself on the train to Stuttgart the next morning, to hear the up-and-coming young German pianist Herbert Schuch at the 29th (?) MusikfeSTuttgart, the sizeable music festival of the International Bach Academy Stuttgart founded by Helmuth Rilling.

“Night” is the topic of this year’s Festival, following last year’s “Light”. Musikfest-Intendant Christian Lorenz explains the themes as ‘topical brackets’. Broad enough to allow a score of musical cross-connections, plain enough not to get lost in musical minutiae that appeal more to specialists than a wider public, and yet offering enough complexity for artists to explore. Programs are generally developed in cooperation with artists—in the case of Herbert Schuch, he had a program ready to suggest; his last CD release conveniently being called “Night Pieces”.

The topic “Night” leads naturally via darkness, shadows, and—in his 200th anniversary year—invariably to Schumann. The quintessence of a German romantic composer spent the last two years of his life in a mental institute certainly has a hand for darkness. German contemporary composer Heinz Holliger, a big admirer of Schumann, speaks with grim delight about Schumann as ‘Crypt Music’. As if on cue, music from Schumann’s Faust Scenes bled from the rehearsals in the Beethoven Hall across from the Mozart Auditorium in Stuttgart’s Liederhalle complex.

available at AmazonR.Schumann, H.Holliger, A.Scriabin, M.Ravel, W.A.Mozart, "Nachtstücke,
Herbert Schuch
Oehms OC733

Herbert Schuch started his Night-bound recital with Mozart who is not generally known for a particularly dark mood. But among Mozart’s works for piano the Adagio in b-minor KV540 stands out among as one the most inconsolable movements in all of Mozart. Crystalline understatement, a relatively hard touch, perfectly captured pianissimos never let any clichés of Mozartean sweetness arise. To strike up connections between music that is on the surface unconnected, he plunges without into the next work, Alexander Scriabin’s sonata No. 9, nicknamed “Messe noire”.

Schuch’s performance was grimly exciting, with a nervous energy rather than outright blackness and—unfortunately—without much of a dramatic arch… over before the spell of Scriabin was cast over me. After the concert, we talked briefly about Scriabin and how he came to the composer through an early fascination:

“Oh, well… I played all the [Scriabin] Preludes op.11 even before I played the Chopin Preludes—I don’t know why. I found it quite interesting, but then I lost interest in Scriabin. I’m not so sure he’s my absolute favorite composer, really, but still I think the Ninth sonata is one of the biggest things he ever wrote because he really wants to reanimate the Beethoven sonata form. And how he does it and how he tries to do it with his own harmonic language is just amazing. And I kind of love that. And to combine it with another Beethoven sonata [he concluded the recital with Beethoven’s 32nd Sonata]. I think is very interesting. There is just one problem with Scriabin: In this sonata he tries to be like Beethoven so he uses small motives and cuts them off and this is the same kind idea Beethoven used in his developments of sonatas. But the major difference is that Scriabin doesn’t have the functional harmonics Beethoven used to have. So it’s very hard for Scriabin to show tension, because everything is tension, because you always have tension You always have kind of dissonant stuff. And I think it is very hard to show a climax, a peak, and he tries to do it with tempo relations, like a big accellerando until the end, and that’s his way to show that things are getting tensed. But he doesn’t have the same harmonic language as Beethoven. So I think he kind of failed. Or I fail to show what he wanted to say. But I think this is a good sign for music if you fail, because the idea might be bigger than the outcome, so it’s a great idea and I try it every time and sometimes I may be lucky and sometimes not.”

If failure it was, it was noble failure—quickly made forgotten by the softness and flexibility of his “Gaspard de la nuit”, cumulating with greatest intensity in the third, Scarbo, movement.

After the break Schuch embarked on traversing one of the grandest piano sonatas in the repertoire. Thomas Mann contributed a good bit of fame and myth to “Opus 111” by dedicating a whole chapter in Dr. Faustus to it (calling it, via Theodor Adorno, “the end to the sonata as such”). Schuch doesn’t let any imagery of Mann get between him and the notes.

“You don’t even think of it when you play it. Of course everybody knows that passage that was written about the sonata, but it’s just a passage of a genius that was impressed by this sonata. But it doesn’t have any meaning for your interpretation. Maybe on the last page, when there is [singing], everyone may think of “Wiesengrund” as quoted in Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, but still the sonata is so big and it requires so many thoughts and decisions that you don’t even have time to think about anything else.”

If Opus 111 wouldn’t actually be the last sonata, even in the hyperbolic Adornian sense, it is certainly among the most ambitious and difficult, uncompromising works and it has seen hardened pianist veterans wilt at the keyboard. Herbert Schuch, too, had been intimidated by the work for years before he dared to perform it in public:

“I’ve been in touch with one-eleven very long and I never wanted to play it because I was not really comfortable with the first movement. I never knew how to manage it. But strangely, if you think too much and don’t play, things get even more complicated. So I think it’s better not to think too much and start playing, and start having a concert and then just see how it works out. Eventually you start to work it out for yourself and then you get the idea of what the piece should be or how it should be.”

And play he did. All the momentousness that wasn’t part of the Scriabin was now piled into the first Beethoven movement—and at a tempo most pianists might pale. The variation movement starts not with hesitancy, but deliberation, as it turns out; carefully and subtly gathering energy and momentum from one variation to the next until in the thunderstorm of the third variation the semidemiquavers just come raining down. And just as a storm came, it goes—leaving the listeners in suspense with one of Beethoven’s most exquisite moments of tranquility. After these last notes of the Beethoven sonata, consoling and heartrending, Beethoven and Schuch were rewarded with real, awed silence—not the fake kind with the pianist holding his limp wrist in the air for idiotic seconds on end, but the real kind.

After that few encores would have fit without ruining the mood. Schuch’s choice was impeccably night-oriented. First Heinz Holliger with the first of his Three ‘Night Pieces’ (“Elis”), then Robert Schumann, unofficial namesake of this year’s Stuttgart Musikfest, with his miniature self-portrait Eusebius from “Carnival”.

Following this review I listened to Herbert Schuch's CD Nachtstücke. Turns out it is absolutely stunning, with some of the finest Schumann (op.23, which lent the record its name) I've heard in a while. A separate review of the CD will be forthcoming on Classical WETA.

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