Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Schumann, Op. 9; Chorale Preludes Nos 10 & 11, Op. 122 (arr. Busoni); Ravel: Le Tombeau de Couperin; Shostakovich: Piano Sonata No. 2
Orion Weiss (piano)
First Hand Records FHR 128 76:56 mins
The arc of the title spans three albums, tracing a journey of before, during and after the two world wars. Here, in the second of the trio, we are at the peak – or more accurately down in the trough – with a programme exploring grief and wartime music. And yet this is a far from bleak album, offering the listener hope and consolation.
Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin epitomises this recording’s themes. Written during the First World War, during which the French composer was a truck driver on the frontline, each of the piano suite’s movements is dedicated to the memory of a fallen soldier and friend. It also marks a time of acute loss for Ravel after his mother died in 1917. Yet this piece, the last of Ravel’s solo piano works, does not speak of despair. Weiss is a nimble guide to music full of momentum, life and detail.
Shostakovich, in 1943, lets desolation into his Second Piano Sonata. Where Weiss breathed serenity with Ravel, there is a loneliness in Shostakovich’s spare textures. The ominous breath-held chords of the second movement, the sense of meandering memories is beautifully done. I missed that final layer of wild and raw emotion that Weiss himself pinpoints in the booklet notes, but this is still a highly intelligent and musical reading.
Between and after these two 20th-century works comes Brahms, in introverted and meditative performances. His Variations on a theme by Schumann was written in the immediate wake of the suicide attempt by Robert Schumann, his early champion. The two Chorale Preludes, Nos 10 and 11, arranged by Busoni, bid farewell to Clara Schumann, his great love, who died in 1896.