BRAHMS: Piano Sonata No. 3 in f minor, Op. 5; SCHUMANN: Humoreske in B-flat Major, Op. 20 – Margaryta Golovko, p. – Blue Griffin BGR365, 65:16 (7/10/15) [Distr. by Albany] ****:

Schumann’s penchant for “laughing and crying” bore fruit in 1839 with the creation in Vienna of his Humoreske in B-flat Major, a sectionalized suite whose material Schumann recycled, in part, in his Manfred incidental music.  Somewhat in the spirit of the later Naturalistic writers like Zola, Schumann stated that he wished to address emotions “with ironic detachment.”  And so, besides a five-note pattern – and the application of ternary form – that serves as a kind of ritornello, the piece exploits a whimsical and mercurial progress for its own sake, often in the spirit of open bravura.

If a pianist brings poetry and muscular definition to Schumann, most likely he or she will qualify for admission into the “Band of David.” Ukrainian pianist Golovko – who captured the top prize at the First Midwest International Piano Competition in June 2014 – projects (rec. 4-5 November 2014) natural and spontaneous sound in Schumann, energetic, alert, and well-nuanced in its adjustments to the Florestan/Eusebius vacillations in the composer’s musical persona.  The contrapuntal Hastig section reveals what Golovko might make of a Bach partita. Schumann transforms this “etude” into a potent maerchen or fairy-tale march that resounds with digital authority.  The more tender elements in Schumann communicate in gorgeous keyboard tone on a Steinway Model D, recorded by Sergei Kvitko.

My own preference among the moods in this elusive piece remains that marked Einfach und Zart, a studied dreamscape close to Schumann’s E.T.A. Hoffmann responses.  The music suddenly urges itself forward, close in mood to the Novellettes of the following opus.  The subsequent Innig celebrates Eusebius and the nostalgia for the dream, the essence of Schumann.  Some of the passing harmonies must have caught the ear of Claude Debussy. Another mood swing, Sehr lebhaft, and Golovko’s rapid wrist and arm motion meets tests of endurance within a texture of layered intensity. After a clarion section, Mit einigem Pomp, Schumann moves to an extended epilogue, Zum Beschluss, another quasi-ballade or novelette whose mood recalls the Arabeske, Op. 18 and Schumann’s idiosyncratic Bach motion.  Ms. Golovko has balanced the poetical and dramatic demands of Schumann most convincingly.

The more “symphonic” Brahms Third Sonata of 1853 has its own knots in a rambling sort of sonata-form structure in its opening movement, Allegro maestoso, but its poetic elements in C and A-flat clearly take their cue from the composer’s first great mentor, Schumann.  Golovko emphasizes the movement’s grumbling romanticism, rife with rhythmic shifts and stentorian outbursts, consonant with the d minor Piano Concerto and the Beethoven Fifth Symphony, at once. Syncopations and rolled tenth chords do not deter Golovko in her assault on what has become a Romantic crag that Heathcliff and Catherine Linton might ascend with various rewards at the F Major culmination of their journey.

The 2/4 Andante espessivo in A-flat Major, descending in thirds and moving in caressed undulations, seems an excellent fit for Golovko’s sensibilities.  Her application of the Brahms top line, ben cantando (songful) proves masterful.  Her playing of the various sequential passages rivals that of Jorge Bolet, my most treasured concert performance of this work. The subtle metric transitions, 2/4 and 3/8, glide in an elastic veil quite appropriate to the lines from poet Sternau that preface the movement, lines that could easily have influenced Dehmel at the inception of Verklaerte Nacht. The apotheosis in D-flat Major conveys a secure sense of exaltation, ironically close in spirit to Liszt. The highly chromatic Scherzo in f minor always rings with acerbic tension, given its play on a witty arpeggio on a diminished seventh chord. The e-flat minor contrasting section, quite Schumann-esque in its mystery, soon propels forward in bizarre harmony, like C-flat. Golovko’s martial power proves resilient and light-handed, requiring little pedal to maintain the detached irony of the movement.

The last two movements are tied by Schumann sensibilities, Reminiscence (Intermezzo) and Finale. The Beethoven “fate” motif has made its presence known throughout the Rueckblick fourth movement, moving step-wise in fairly consistent b-flat minor. The last movement might wish to dance, but the syncopes and heavy treads on D-flat prove cumbersome to any sustained exaltation.  What beauty emerges comes in F Major, and Golovko, milks this passing rapture in silken tones. Once the rondo settles into f minor securely, the affect remains: heavy, contrapuntal, seriously Teutonic, much in anticipation of the F Minor Piano Quintet. A chorale in D-flat Major evolves, and Brahms treats this motif to color variation while superimposing the jagged dance motif.  Golovko’s left hand leads her right in canon, sounding a bit like a children’s song. Golovko erupts, piu mosso, appassionato, and grandioso, into a coda of power and persuasion, Romantic music rendered sympathetically by a kindred spirit.

—Gary Lemco