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Schubert, Schumann, Ives: Not Beautiful, Courageous!

available at Amazon

C.Ives, Violin Sonatas,
J.Wood / D.Riley

available at AmazonC.Ives, Violin Sonatas,
C.Thompson / R.Waters

available at AmazonC.Ives, Violin Sonatas,
H.Hahn / V.Lisitsa

It may look like Violinist Carolin Widmann has emerged from a contemporary music niche to the much larger niche of classical music in general; from Boulez and Salonen to Schumann and Schubert. That’s not quite right in the sense that she had never eschewed the classics in the first place. And it’s not quite right in the sense that she isn’t abstaining from Morton Feldman or John Cage, either. Except if her next album were Feldman, you wouldn’t as likely hear about it as her recent Schubert and 2008 Schumann recitals for ECM.

Widman put her enthusiastically championed, but ear- and brain-demanding modern repertoire to a pragmatic side for her BR-Klassik studio recital. Bavarian Radio’s “Studio 2” was packed on the evening of January 16th despite snowy roads outside, where Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert lurked on the bill, to be broadcast live. And the coy shock of musical hair of Charles Ives peeked out from safe Viennese Classicism—in the form of his brief “Children’s Day at the Camp MeetingFourth Violin Sonata, a terrific palate cleanser full of jocular collages and irreverent references. Hearing Ives live is usually bliss or excitement: in any case wide-open ears... and certainly proved so on this occasion.

Perhaps in a further concession to commercial realities, the opening act of Schumann’s vast first Violin Sonata No.1 (performed dry, aggressively, accentuated, slightly put-on, but certainly full blooded) sat next to Schubert’s Fantasie D934. The two pieces are uneasy benchmates, with the latter—despite it’s own classical, carefully structured brilliance—exposed as backwards by the brooding forward hurdling Schumann. Yes, the composers’ names sound so similar, but their music doesn’t… and yet they trigger easily assumed false equivalencies that help neither.

Schumann-Ives is a more natural combination and bookending the recital with Schumann’s two staple sonatas (the composite Third is less popular, though just as intriguing) made dramatic sense, too. It helped that the playing was more comfortable, with all the agogics, little twists and turns and emphases now naturally in place, where they had stood out as potentially self-serving in the first sonata. Among the aural joys of her playing is that Widmann uses vibrato for color and shaping of notes, not to give a homogenizing perma-glow to her notes. Her varied musical pizzicatos—no-two-ever-the-same—are ever a delight. I would go hear her just for the pizzicatos (op.121, third movement!)… something the war-torn beauty of the Poulenc encore (“La guitare fait pleurer les songes...”) further emphasized.

See also:

Sometimes the Beauty Isn't So Obvious - Interview with Violinist Carolin Widmann
Best Recordings of 2012 (4)
Dip Your Ears, No.97
Best Recordings of 2008 “Almost List”
Widmann is so compelling because she isn’t primarily beautiful, but courageous. Daring means risks, and risks mean mistakes. A little something off in intonation here or there. A hesitant wiggle in the soft, breathy, and scarily, endlessly long opening of the Fantasie. Nor isWidmann afraid of mannerisms and exaggerations. But the impression of the whole is not married to any infelicities. Instead it is tied to the riveting approach of the music and the ravenous appetite with which she devours tasty notes. I carry my nose high, and my expectations low, and I’m not a fan of much or many, but Carolin Widmann, even in imperfect form, is a delight.