Arc II: Orion Weiss plays Ravel, Brahms, Shostakovich – First Hand Records

by | Dec 23, 2022 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

Arc II: RAVEL: Le Tombeau de Couperin; BRAHMS: Variations on a Theme by Schumann, Op. 9; BRAHMS (arr. Busoni): 2 Chorale Preludes from, Op. 122; SHOSTAKOVICH: Piano Sonata No. 2 in B Minor, Op. 61 – Orion Weiss, piano – First Hand Records FHR128 (76:56) (2022) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Arc II extends a three-part project (rec. June 1-4, 2018) by pianist Orion Weiss that addresses keyboard works created “During World War I, World War II, During Times of Grief.” The emotional curve moves to despair, as the material and political forces converge to plunge the world and individuals into anxiety, chaos, and death on a global scale. Weiss contends that the composers in the present collection, suffering disaster, forged works that reflect the spirit of the times in a darkly modern syntax, here trying to cope with loss to find a way back, “from horror to hope.”

Of his Arc album series, Orion Weiss explains: “The arc of this recital trilogy is inverted, like a rainbow’s reflection in water. Arc I’s first steps [headed] downhill, beginning from hope and proceeding down to despair. The bottom of the journey, Arc II, is Earth’s center, grief, loss, the lowest we can reach.” Recall that Ravel had recently lost his mother when he composed much of the Tombeau, in its “archaic” guise. Weiss begins with Ravel’s “baroque” suite of six movements, Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17), that pay homage to fallen friends in World War I, set as “loops” and “spirals” in Weiss’s estimation, highly ornamental in modal harmony, as in the opening “Prelude,” in memory of First Lt. Jacques Charlot.

A delicate clockwork marks the E Minor ”Fugue,” syncopated and subdued in tone, a tribute to Second Lt. Jean Cruppi, whose mother had received the dedication of L’heure espagnole. The extended 6/8 “Forlane” bears a slanting melodic curve in E Minor, melancholy and shadowed by modal scales and overtones. The more genial “Rigaudon” in C Major moves in martial periods, a tribute to a pair of fallen brothers, Pierre and Pascal Gaudin. Weiss plays its middle section with an especial espressivo. The G Major Menuet” is all tenderness, a celebration of Jean Dreyfus, a work Weiss calls “serious but not tragic.” Still, the “Menuet” achives a moment of epic girth before is retreats into its music-box nostalgia that recalls the composer’s “Mother Goose” in the last page. Musicologist Joseph de Marliave receives the homage in the “blazing” last movement, “Toccata.” A certain “orientalism” permeates the repeated figures, set in E Minor that will modulate into a more assertive and optimistic E Major. Weiss’s capacity for sterling staccatos and jeu perle arrests our attention, the “hammering out of pent-up emotions and the tactile therapy of repetition.”

Weiss proceeds to a true momento mori, insofar as the 1854 Variations on a Theme of Schumann by Brahms were conceived as a consolation piece for Clara Schumann, whose husband had already suffered mental disintegration. Robert Schumann, in 1852, had assembled various sketches and pieces (1836-11851) into a collection of Bunte Blätter (Colored Leaves), Op. 99. The pieces often hid Robert’s motto sequence for Clara: C-B-A-G#-A that bore the designation “Clara’s theme.” Brahms entered the Schumann household in 1853, the same year Clara had composed her own variations on “her” theme, as Op .20, dedicated to “My beloved husband on June 8, 1853.” By March of 1854 Schumann had to be confined in a sanitarium in Endenich, close to Bonn, his having attempted suicide on February 27, 1854. Brahms offered his sixteen variations to Clara Schumann as both a source of spiritual consolation for her and a sublimated love-letter to the woman he would adore to the day she died. The manuscript follows Schumann’s dual personae, his Florestan and Eusebius, by using the initials “B” and “Kr” to indicate the temperamental nature of the variants, as either by the more restrained Johannes Brahms or Johannes Kreisler, thee impulsive and passionate character out of E.T.A. Hoffmann.  In his unsent letter to Brahms from the asylum, Schumann gives a clear, musical analysis of the work he much admired:

My Dearest Friend,
What very great pleasure you have given me with your Variations! My Clara has already written to tell me how delighted she was with them. That you have studied counterpoint deeply is apparent in all the Variations. How tender, how original in its masterly expression, how ingenious every one of them! How I should like to hear you or Clara play them! And then, the wonderful variety! The third, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth with its retrogression in the second part. The following Andante, how tender: the eighth with its beautiful second part. Then the ninth, how beautiful in form; the tenth, how full of art, how tender; how individual and delicate the eleventh, and how ingeniously the twelfth joins it! Then the thirteenth, with its sweet metaphysical tones, and next the Andante, with its witty and artistic canon in seconds, and the fifteenth in C flat major, the sixteenth beautifully and blessedly ending in F sharp major. How sincerely my Clara and I have to thank you for your dedication! I thank you also most heartily for giving so much of your previous time to my Clara. Write to me; I should be delighted.

Your admiring friend,


Weiss performs the Brahms in an articulate, sober performance, aware that many of the motifs allude to various Schumann compositions, and even to Clara Schumann’s own variants on Robert’s key motif. The tautness of the musical line occasionally wavers, the juxtaposed moods of anger and consolation often colliding without transition. That Weiss conveys the sense of groping for resolution in the midst of chaotic emotions does come through, with sincere conviction, a shared moment of “consoling loneliness.”

For a model of performance of the 1943 Shosta6kovich Sonata No. 2 in B Minor, we have long cherished the reading by Emil Gilels, who brought both poetry and demonic energy to a piece conceived in the wartime environment and dedicated to a favorite teacher and victim of the war, Leonid Nikolayev, of the Leningrad Conservatory. Weiss savors the quickly developed, symphonic sonority of the first movement, Allegretto, in sympathy with the Leningrad Symphony from same period. Yet, much of the development moves in narrative dialogue between a two-note and three-note antiphon, interrupted by fast moving, swirling runs or a percussive march. Weiss in his note calls the music “romantic, wild, and raw.” The martial impulse closes the movement. A waltz motif opens the second movement Largo, an extended, askew sensibility fraught with hazy sonority and irregular phrase lengths.

Weiss interprets the last movement – Moderato (con moto) – Allegretto con moto – Adagio – Moderato – as “the true heart of the work.”  The soft, martial theme will undergo a series of bold variations, the harmony urged further afield, and the rhythms twisted into contradictory juxtaposition. Weiss’s capacity for obsessive staccato runs finds itself sorely tested, and he must manage without excessive percussion to make it work. Shostakovich, almost in the manner of Webern, pulverizes his material until a bare-bones schematic remains, although the main march tries to reassert its primacy. The music sound like a medieval hocket, or perhaps some remnant from either Beethoven (Op. 111) or Prokofiev. Suddenly, a French Overture in canon erupts, a vestige of the Bach Goldbergs? The music settles into a grumble, repetitive and lyrical, at once, We recognize the narrative of movement one, but the music has become lachrymose plainchant. The music, as a last gasp, begins with a figures lyrical and arpeggiated, the bass resonant, but the impulse fails, the coda staggers to a close.

Weiss ends with two of the Brahms 1896 chorale preludes for organ, Op. 122, transcribed by Busoni for the piano keyboard: Herzlich tut mich verlangen in A Minor and O Welt, ich muss dich lassen in F. “My  Heart is filled with Longing” and “O World, I must leave Thee” confirm the Brahms letter Weiss quotes: “Now I have nobody left to lose,” after the death of Clara Schumann. Only the changes in key and modality in the two works testifies to anything like some hope’s arising from the personal grief and despair in the aged Brahms, a musical equivalent of the eyes of Leonardo da Vinci in his final self-portrait.

—Gary Lemco


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