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Beyond Schumann
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856), with improvisations by Michael GEES (b. 1953)
see end of review for track listing
Michael Gees (piano)
rec. October/November 2012, Großer Lindensaal, Markkleeberg, Germany
CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72597 [56:04 + 40:46]  

Take a close look at the simple cover of this CD: “Michael Gees” above “beyond schumann”, lower case and in a smaller font-size, so it probably involves music by Schumann, though the pianist appears to have priority. On the back, titles of works by Schumann; might make you think you are getting accounts of the works listed: Symphonic Studies, Scenes from Childhood, Kreisleriana, Prophet-Bird?
 
Not as such. Most of the performances start off innocently enough, as the composer wrote them but it isn’t long before you notice diversions from the printed copy, and we aren’t talking editorial amendments here. Each piece is changed to some degree, sometimes considerably extended. Michael Gees, to paraphrase his words from the liner-notes is “playing with it”. Let’s start there, from his notes in which, somewhat in the style of a rant, he sets out the philosophy behind his interpretations of these very well-known works.
 
If I understand what Gees is saying correctly, music is a constantly evolving stream; composers tap into the stream at some point, capture what they find there and write it down. Gees asserts that, at a later date, musicians find the music downstream and interpret it from their standpoint, effectively producing a version modified by their historical position and their own intellect and feelings. Where Gees differs from most Classical musicians, is that he goes further and modifies the text, rather than just interpreting what was written by the composer.
 
Now you know as much, you may just stop reading if the idea of changing - or eliminating or adding - notes is anathema to you. Of course this fidelity to the composer’s score is a convention in the Western Classical repertoire; other styles of music adopt change all the time. In any event, I urge you to persevere, beyond this review and as far as listening to the CDs themselves.
 
The very notion of this approach to a composer’s music raises a number of questions which need to be stated at least; the answers require an essay if not a thesis, and I won’t attempt them here; neither, to my disappointment, does Gees himself in the notes to these CDs, though there is relevant discussion to be found in interviews and comments documented on the Internet. A few minutes thought resulted in the following:
•  Can you use this approach with any composer, regardless of what they might have thought - if that matters? Recalling what Ravel said of some interpretations of his music, I doubt it in his case.
•  Are the changes/improvisations, whatever you call them, to be in the style of the composer, or in any style, or maybe just that of the performer?
•  What do you call the changes: improvisations, variations, arrangement, elaborations, reductions … and again, does it matter?
•  If you record an ‘improvisation’, at what point might you call it a ‘version’? In other words, where do you stop?
 
As documented in an interview, Gees himself has an interesting answer to the last question: “This may be a crucial point, as it is very hard to combine those two things: recording and spontaneity. In a concert performance I completely trust the moment when all those ideas come to me and fade away. It happens once and that is it. There is nothing to hold on to. A recording is meant to last and it needs to be heard again, and again, and again. Of course, I hope that it goes that way, that my music is as good as Satie’s, but honestly, I’m not satisfied either with the concept of my recorded improvisations. Actually, it might be the best solution not to record it at all. It is hard to say but I realise that it is a compromise which is more or less dominated by sales and marketing.”
 
So even he is uncertain whether improvisational interpretations should simply be confined to the concert hall, in so far as a recording is an arbitrary aural snapshot of how the musician is feeling at a particular point in time.
 
Philosophy aside, it is the case that we do have this artefact capturing Michael Gees’ thoughts and feelings about certain works of Schumann towards the end of 2012. Is the outcome worth having in its own right?
 
My answer is unequivocally ‘yes’, although he would not be my favourite Schumann interpreter - Eusebius rather dominates Florestan. What he does with the source material is endlessly interesting and the outcomes would be fine pieces of music whether or not the listener was familiar with the originals or had even heard of Schumann. Without an intensive analysis of each piece and what he does with it or why - sadly, he doesn’t help us out with any background to his thought processes in the notes - here are a few pointers.
 
Each of the Kindeszenen pieces is expanded, typically starting with the first few bars as written plus a short fantasy or variations, mostly in an extended Schumann-esque style, though sometimes with elements of other composers. Hasche-Mann has a scary section in which I find the influence of Janáček, perhaps suggesting the tense nature of blind man’s buff In Bittendes Kind, the feeling of gentle entreaty is emphasized. Gees’ additions generally extend the mood of what has gone before. In Wichtige Begebenheit the ‘important event’ becomes even more pompous as described by Gees. In Traumerei - unusually, changed in the very first bar - an obsessive repetition accentuates the mood. In the much extended Ritter vom Steckenpferd, it sounds as if Brad Mehldau has been astride the rocking horse. There is an undercurrent of fear in Fürchtenmachen and an edge of insecurity in Kind im Einschlummern, suggesting that sleep is not necessarily a safe place for a child. When finally the poet speaks, Gees ends with Schumann alone, played simply and movingly.
 
In the Sinfonische Etüden and Kreisleriana, the elaborations are on a larger scale as you might expect with these big works. The harmonies extend well beyond Schumann’s.Vogel als Prophet turns into a big, introspective piece - a very interesting composition in its own right, in which I hear the influence of, not German heirs to Schumann, but Bax. Without any help from Gees, I have no idea whether my intuition is correct.
 
When I went back to Schumann’s unadorned originals after a day or two of Gees, I had the distinctly heretical feeling of missing something and I wished I had Gees’ music written down to play from. That misses the point of improvisation, of the inspiration of the moment, though after reading Gees’ notes, I feel encouraged to try my own improvisations. What do other classical pianists do with their own favourites in the privacy of their practice rooms, I wonder.
 
Roger Blackburn 

Track listing
CD 1
Sinfonische Etüden(1834)
1. Theme - Andante [1:00]
2. Etude I (Variation 1) - Un poco più vivo [1:34]
3. Etude II (Variation 2) - Andante [4:00]
4. Etude III - Vivace [1:49]
5. Etude IV (Variation 3) - Allegro marcato [1:24]
6. Etude V (Variation 4) - Scherzando [1:36]
7. Etude VI (Variation 5) - Agitato [1:31]
8. Etude VII (Variation 6) - Allegro molto 1:27]
9. Etude VIII (Variation 7) - Sempre marcatissimo [2:11]
10. Etude IX - Presto possibile [2:24]
11. Etude X (Variation 8) - Allegro con energia [3:05]
12. Etude XI (Variation 9) - Andante espressivo [2:04]
13. Etude XII (Finale) - Allegro brillante [8:00]
Kinderszenen (1838)
14. Von fremden Ländern und Menschen [1:35]
15. Kuriose Geschichte [1:19]
16. Hasche-Mann [1:29]
17. Bittendes Kind [1:45]
18. Glückes genug [1:50]
19. Wichtige Begebenheit [1:02]
20. Träumerei [2:28]
21. Am Kamin [1:22]
22. Ritter vom Steckenpferd [1:54]
23. Fast zu ernst [2:09]
24. Fürchtenmachen [2:10]
25. Kind im Einschlummern [2:37]
26. Der Dichter spricht [2:14]
 
CD 2
Kreisleriana op. 16 (1838)
1. Äußerst bewegt, D minor [3:14]
2. Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch, B-flat major [7:12]
3. Sehr aufgeregt, G minor [3:09]
4. Sehr langsam, B-flat major/D minor [3:22]
5. Sehr lebhaft, G minor [4:06]
6. Sehr langsam, B-flat major [[3:29]
7. Sehr rasch, C minor/E-flat major [2:22]
8. Schnell und spielend, G minor [4:20]
9. From Waldszenen op. 82: Vogel als Prophet [9:30]

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