CHOPIN: Piano Sonata No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 58; SCHUMANN: Kreisleriana, Op. 16 – Jean-Baptiste Mueller, piano –  Klavier JBM 40665, 62:00 ****:           

Basel-born Jean-Baptiste Mueller, currently residing in Paris, accounts himself a pupil of such luminaries as Alexis Weissenberg and Adam Harasiewicz, writing of himself as a pianist who has absorbed the Vienna, Argentina, and Russian schools of keyboard tradition.  From what I can gather on the meager notes for this Chopin/Schumann recital, the recording dates from 1996, and was manufactured in Switzerland.

Mueller addresses the 1844 Chopin B Minor Sonata with seriousness of purpose, granting the opening movement Allegro maestoso an indulgent leisure, given its hybrid aspects of ballade and dramatic nocturne. The repeat provides a girth in this composition we often miss. The canonical effects in the scalar passages gain resonance, as does the cantabile theme in D, sostenuto, in terms of Chopin’s having imbibed the bel canto operatic line for instrumental expression. Mueller’s development section becomes – for want of a Romantic epithet – “inward,” especially since Chopin dispenses with a formal recapitulation in favor of the second theme. Most persuasive, Mueller’s trills extend the musical line forward, ushering in changes of both rhythm and texture.

The dexterity of Mueller’s right hand asserts itself throughout the Scherzo: Molto vivace, a flickering, mercurial experience rendered in deftly light touches. Some affecting legato appears in the middle section before the heat lightning emerges, da capo. We have had some incandescent readings of the great Largo movement, with its dotted rhythm and glorious E Major middle section. Mueller appeals to the Largo’s exalted repose, its elevated capacity for singing in right hand triplets. The hypnotic quality of the middle section reveals itself to us, as we already knew from the likes of Rubinstein, Lipatti, and Casadesus. The brazen eight-bar introduction to the Finale, in bold octaves, sets the tone for Mueller’s powerful Presto, man non tanto, a rousing, bravura rondo that takes the tarantella to more frenzied heights at ach repetition of the theme. Mueller has indeed brought to heel much of Chopin’s – and William Blake’s – tiger in a demonstration of virile and often poetic virtuosity.

The eight-movement suite 1838 Kreisleriana of Robert Schumann has been well cited for its reliance on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Lebensansichten des Katers Murr nebst fragmentarischer Biographie des Kapellmeisters Johannes Kreisler (1819-1821). The ironic state of misunderstood genius easily applies to Schumann’s own relationship to his future wife, Clara Wieck, whose piano art could soothe his mental ecstasies, especially as seven of the movements – originally called Fantasien – contain the “Clara” motif of descending steps. The most intricate movement, the second, compresses much of the Schumann oeuvre into a rondo form with romantic interludes. The martial movements, maerchen really, combine Schumann’s “elected” personae with his fairy-tale ethos that wishes to defeat Philistinism.

Mueller certainly captures the prevalent “dreamscape” of Schumann creative imagination in the form, and Mueller accomplishes his “inward” visions with a light hand. The contrapuntal dimension of Schumann becomes somewhat manic in the sixth movement, Sehr langsam, although a lyrical impulse does emerge from the severe canonic lines. So, too, the pungent maerchen, Sehr rasch/etwas langsamer beguile in their almost poisonous polyphony. That Schumann might have named this suite liebestraume seems entirely appropriate, given the presence of “nostalgia for the dream” that saturates his work. Ardent, flirtatious, militant, manically polarized, the movements of Kreisleriana indulge in those realms in which madness and rationality often conflict, combine, or lose their boundaries. While Horowitz still provides the touchstone performance of this mighty fantasy-piece, this version of Mueller carries its own idiosyncratic charm and propulsion.

—Gary Lemco