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SCHUMANN: Carnaval; Piano Sonata No. 2 in G Minor; Papillons – Jon Nakamatsu, p. – Harmonia mundi

SCHUMANN: Carnaval, Op. 9; Piano Sonata No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 22; Papillons, Op. 2 – Jon Nakamatsu, p. – Harmonia mundi HMU 907503, 65:20 (3/4/14) ****:

Jon Nakamatsu, 1977 Gold Medal Winner at the Van Cliburn Competition, continues his legacy of Romantic repertory recordings with three staples of Robert Schumann, recorded December, 2012 at The American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York.  The familiarity of this Schumann repertory, however, may give all but the most ardent Nakamatsu devotees some pause in purchasing a recital so often traversed by the likes of Kuerti, Casadesus, Perahia, Demus, and Rubinstein.

Nakamatsu opens with the 1835 Sonata in G Minor, a work whose first movement combines feverish tempo requirements with poetic feeling. The martial elements after the accented tonic chord receive underlining in Nakamatsu’s pedaled landings, while the sheer toccata figurations and syncopations at once harken to Bach and to the string tablature of Paganini. Schumann asks for each repetition of his ritornello to assume ever more speed, the descent of sixteenths in octaves that Nakamatsu negotiates while still making music and not mere acrobatics. Schumann adapted his song “Im Herbst” for the second movement Andantino. Eighth note figures from Nakamatsu accompany the original 1828 lyric set in standard ternary form.  A second florid melody appears, as if in dialogue, the entire colloquy eloquent and intimate simultaneously. The ensuing Scherzo at Bar 64 passes by almost as if it were an aside or afterthought. Nakamatsu enjoys its dotted rhythm and spluttering antics that move into staccato figures. The “replacement” finale, marked Rondo: Presto combines the sonata-rondo form favored by Haydn. Eusebius, Schumann’s retiring poetic self, appears in the counter-subject. Nakamatsu maintains a light hand in spite of the open aggression of the music’s first subject, breathless and rather grudging Prestissimo, quasi cadenza, that may sound like a liberated flock of harps.

The set of Papillons, Op. 2 (1831) refers, as Robert Schauffler has oft pointed out, to a novel by Jean-Paul Richter entitled Flegeljahre, or “Years of Indiscretion.” Richter conceived his “butterflies” as both poetic ideas and social climbers, subtitling the episodes “The Dance of the Masks.” The “masked ball” conceit proved essential to the Romantic ethos, as in Verdi as well as Schumann. Richter’s two personae, Walt and Vult  (and their beloved Wina) engage in a series of transformations which for Schumann become musical anagrams.  Nakamatsu allots the poetic and martial affects to his assembled cast of characters, as he will in the more ambitious Carnaval. The presence of maerchen, or fairy-tale ballades, in the course of the work, finally culminate in a march that will become a cultural battle-cry against self-satisfied Philistinism. The Vivo section’s waltzing charm struck me as particularly effective in Nakamatsu’s rendition.

Schumann’s suite of twenty pieces, Carnaval, endures as a testament to the colossal invention on four notes – A, E-flat, C, B natural – that the composer could exact in a manner worthy of Beethoven in his Fifth Symphony. Arranged as a masked ball (at the season of Fasching) attended by legendary, psychological, and artistic figures dear to Schumann, the suite really celebrates estates of love and the infinite healing power of music in the midst of an ongoing battle against intellectual mediocrity. That the suite celebrates the town of Asch, letters from Schumann’s own name, and his girlfriend at the time, Ms. Von Fricken, must serve as mere multi-tasking. Nakamatsu brings a hectic mannerism to the opening Preambule and a bit too much marcato to Pierrot, but the sobriety of tone does not become moribund as it proceeds to the impish Arelquin. The assemblage of waltzes and marches quite captivates us by Nakamatsu, and we can savor his legato as well as his brilliant pearly-play in the rapid sequences. Chiarina (Clara Wieck) and Estrella (Ernestine von Fricken) flank the poetically haughty Chopin, followed by the peasant-effects of Reconnaissance. Like most modern realizations of the suite, this one omits the long-held anagram notes Schumann entitled Sphinxes that would have appeared (unnumbered) between the eighth and ninth sections. Nakamatsu drives the Pantalon et Colombine section hard, only to relent temporarily in the Valse allemande so he can re-emerge, furioso, as Paganini. The gentle Aveu enjoys a magical aura, transitioning to a swaggering Promenade. And after an ironic Pause, we hurtle into the dramatic, four-square March of the Davids-Leaguers. The youthful figures tower against the old grandfather-waltz of outmoded tradition, and Nakamatsu effects a blitz of marvelous polyphony. 

Brad Michel’s engineering of Nakamatsu’s Hamburg Steinway D proves resonant and engaging, but will auditors actively seek another survey of trodden paths, despite their effective performances.

—Gary Lemco

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