Mainly Mozart Becomes All Schumann

02.24.08
Anne-Marie McDermott
San Diego Arts

Poor Robert Schumann. A composer of genius, he suffered from bipolar disorder and most likely syphilis, diseases which the 19th century could neither cure nor alleviate. At the height of his career and the end of his rope, Schumann attempted suicide, only to die two years later at age 46 in an insane asylum. Sadly, his personal struggles with sanity were projected onto the evaluation of his music, even by such astute contemporaries as Felix Mendelssohn and Franz Liszt.

Noted musicologist of the last century Alfred Einstein epitomized the critical take on Schumann when he dismissed the bulk of his mature works as structurally flawed and highly mannered, and he went on to say in his influential "Music in the Romantic Era" that the music world would have been better off if only Schumann had died at age 35 and saved us from those symphonies and reams of chamber music! Fortunately this moralistic view of Schumann is waning, and current performers are showcasing the pleasures of his late oeuvre.

As part of its Spotlight Series, Mainly Mozart presented an all-Schumann concert at the Neurosciences Institute Friday night with pianist Anne-Marie McDermott at the heart and center of the program. A wise choice. No, a brilliant choice. No--the only choice! When it comes to communicating the complexities of a score through the wide-ranging catalogue of piano techniques, colors and textures and executing the same with utmost clarity at the most dangerous tempos, McDermott is in a class by herself. There are other pianists who play louder (mainly Russians and recent winners of piano competitions) and those who display more blatant technical histrionics--but what good are these attributes in chamber music?

McDermott and violinist Ida Kavafian opened the evening with the A Minor Violin Sonata, three movements of rhapsodic bravura writing whose technical demands, to use the vernacular, take no prisoners. McDermott was up to every challenge. She endowed the piano part with an orchestral sweep and depth while dispatching colorful counter themes to the violin as if she had sprouted an invisible third hand. And when the sonata's middle movement called for a more crisp, playful approach, her exuberance was matched by her rhythmic precision and sparkling articulation. Although Kavafian is a respected chamber musician--she is a familiar presence in San Diego festivals--she did not match McDermott's level, and at times the violinist sounded like she was scrambling just to keep up. Her naturally bright timbre turned edgy and even at times under pitch.

Kavafian did find the chance to redeem herself in the D Minor Piano Trio, with McDermott and cellist Andrew Shulman. Like the Violin Sonata, the Trio is a passionate piece, although it engages in more varied contrasts of mood, including a solemn, haunting third movement that presages the sonic landscapes of Bartok's "night music" and Messiaen's elevated, otherworldly meditations. The three musicians were seized by Schumann's ebullience, and no one shirked an eighth-note's worth of responsibilities. By this time we had already heard the warm, burnished tones of Shulman's cello playing in the three "Fantasiestuecke," Op. 73. He made this modest, familiar journey seem like a rich emotional excursion undertaken by an entire song cycle. Shulman's ability to float a phrase with just the right amount of shimmer makes him an ideal interpreter of the Romantic idiom.

Sadly, the Schumann catalogue is not sufficiently numerous to supply a Simply Schumann Festival. But we have Mainly Mozart to thank for this opportunity to experience a portion of his vibrant chamber works in a single evening. Perhaps the current century will make up for the slights of the last two concerning this composer.