Schumann: Sinfonische Etüden, Op. 13
To what extent is the text of a musical masterpiece sacrosanct? The question is often posed with regard to music from the 18th century when composers were prized for their abilities to improvise. As is well known, Mozart frequently embellished the melodic lines in the slow movements of his Piano Concertos, and he would no doubt have expected others performing his music to have followed his example. But would composers during the Romantic era, who in any case adopted a more rhapsodic approach to musical structure than their predecessors, have subscribed so readily to the same principles as Mozart?
This issue is raised in Michael Gees’s provocative release Beyond Schumann, challenging the notion that the most important duty of the interpreter is to play everything that is written on the page. Instead he views the Sinfonische Etüden, Kinderszenen and Kreisleriana as ‘living creatures, which have long been emancipated from their composers, which grow with us and want to become part of us’. But Gees goes much further than just embellishing melodies, since he allows his own creative flights of fantasy to extend Schumann’s material where he sees fit. The results can be extremely stimulating, particularly in a work like Kreisleriana where within a few bars Schumann moves almost schizophrenically from a mood of intimacy to raging passion. I am less convinced, however, by his extemporisations in the Sinfonische Etüden. For example, the Second Variation seems inordinately extended in the context of the overall structure. Furthermore although there are some wonderfully humorous touches in ‘Wichtige Begebenheit’, I wonder whether Gees’s elaborations in general in Kinderszenen sometimes work against the childlike simplicity of the music.