Schumann afresh

There has been no composer with a more tumultuous life than Robert Schumann (1810-1856). The epithet Romantic wholly applies to the German, whose love life, trials and tribulations were often stranger than fiction.

That was the basis for celebrated South Korean pianist Kun-woo Paik's all-Schumann recital, fortuitously held on what today's romantics know as Valentine's Day.

Even the fear of the coronavirus did not deter a sizeable audience (including many Koreans) from enjoying Paik's marvellous two-hour show, which was substantially expanded from its original programme.

The selection encompassed very early to very late works, familiar pieces and rarities, from the technically simple to ferociously virtuosic, with a multitude of nuances captured within.

Schumann's very first opus was Abegg Variations (Op. 1), based on the five notes in the name of an early romantic interest. Encumbered with the fussy filigree which obsessed early Romantic composers, Paik easily overcame relentless note-churning without losing the thrust of its melodic interest.

Equally note-laden was his Toccata (Op. 7), a notorious finger-twister which could have easily descended into vacuous machine-gun rapid fire. Again, his prodigious fingers were fully in service to the music.

Between the barnstorming were five Album Leaves from Bunte Blatter (Colourful Leaves, Op. 99), character pieces traversing varied moods and shades of disposition. The first, which famously became the theme for Brahms' Schumann Variations, was a study of calm and melancholy. Turbulence, geniality and pensiveness followed before the set closed with hymn-like lyricism.

By now, one would have discerned that Schumann was a miniaturist nonpareil, and the entire recital consisted of suites with multiple short movements.

Waldszenen (Forest Scenes, Op. 82) comprised nine such pieces, exploring a world of woodland rusticity and mysticism. It was the latter that found most traction in Verrufene Stelle (Haunted Place) and Vogel Als Prophet (The Prophet Bird), slow numbers which were quietly haunting.

The two most frequently heard works were Arabeske (Op. 18) and Papillons (Op. 2), which can often be tainted with over-familiarity. Not so in Paik's case. With multiple and quixotic shifts in dynamics and mood in both, surprises abounded at each turn. These he negotiated with a sense of wonder and fantasy, such that the music always sounded fresh and newly minted.

This sense of discovery applied as well to the least familiar works, Fantasiestucke (Fantasy Pieces, Op. 111) and Gesange Der Fruhe (Songs Of Dawn, Op. 133), conceived near the close of Schumann's tragic life, which ended in an asylum.



    Kun-woo Paik, Piano Recital

    Victoria Concert Hall/Last Friday

The former were championed in concert by the great Vladimir Horowitz during his late years, and Paik's view was every bit as vivid. The latter are elusive and cryptic, but he unlocked their secrets through a near-seamless emotional arc spanning all possible cerebral and visceral experiences.

His encore was a continuation of this poetic and lyrical bent: the Aria slow movement from Schumann's First Sonata (Op. 11), dedicated to his beloved Clara, whom he later married. Such is the measure of a true artist.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 17, 2020, with the headline Schumann afresh. Subscribe