Schumann CD review by James Harrington, Fanfare

“Her quiet, breathless opening of the staccato Étude 9, marked Presto possibile, puts Faliks is in a league with some of the greatest pianists to record this work.”

SCHUMANN Symphonic Études, op. 13. C. SCHUMANN Piano Sonata in g / MSR 7891 (55:10)

Ukrainian-born American pianist Inna Faliks is Professor of Piano and Head of the Piano Department at UCLA. She has a busy concert schedule (with the exception of this past year) and a long established interest in presenting programs that include poetry and spoken word interspersed with wide-ranging piano repertoire. I attended one of these enjoyable and unique programs in New York several years ago. She has worked with the Yamaha Disklavier extensively for many years and she told me that technology has been huge in her recording, teaching, and performing over the past year. This disc was recorded under challenging circumstances last summer with Faliks at the piano in a mask and her sound engineer a floor below, on Skype.

Here we have Volume 1 of The Schumann Project. Each program is planned to juxtapose a major work by both Robert (1810-56) and Clara (1819-96). Faliks says this may invite comparisons, but her goal is simply to unite their musical voices. When they met, Clara was 9 years old and Robert 18. About 10 years later in 1837, Robert proposed and Clara accepted. Due to Clara’s father’s objections they were not married until 1840. Over the next 14 years, they had 8 children and Clara’s continuing concert career was their primary source of income. She was a child prodigy and continued to be highly regarded as a pianist for over 60 years. Arguably only Liszt was considered her superior. Robert composed far more music and was an influential music critic, but his early career as a virtuoso pianist was cut short by a hand injury. He and Clara composed only one work together, the Zwölf Lieder auf F. Rückerts Liebesfrühling, her op. 12 and his op. 37. They were supportive and close to Brahms who helped Clara manage the household and finances, especially after Robert’s breakdown and subsequent death.

Clara’s Piano Sonata in G minor (1841-42) opens this program. It is a 20 minute, large, four movement work. Clara, at the age of 22, wrote in her diary “I tried to compose something for Robert, and lo and behold, it worked! I was blissful at having really completed a first and second sonata movement, which did not fail to produce an effect – namely, they took my dear husband quite by surprise.” The sonata was never performed during her lifetime; it was first published in 1991. Clara took the third movement Scherzo and made it the 4th of her Vier flüchtige Stücke, op. 15 (published 1845).

Faliks performed Clara’s Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony when she was 15 years old, the same age as Clara when she composed it. Last year Faliks’s students performed Clara’s piano works in their entirety. The performance here comes with a deep understanding of the composer, developed over a lifetime. The youthfulness in this work is played with a clarity and sense of style that makes it very natural. Clara was generous in her score with tempo and phrase markings and Faliks’s misses nothing. We get an enticing view of the work that is dramatic, tender, sparkling, and energetic as is called for in the four movements.

Robert’s Symphonic Études began in 1834 as a theme by Baron von Fricken and 16 variations with an additional variation on a different theme by Heinrich Marschner that also incorporates the Fricken theme occasionally. By the time the first edition was published in 1837, 11 of the Fricken variations and the Marschner variation Finale were published as Etüden in Form von Variationen (Symphonische Étüden). This is the edition used by Faliks. To make things a little more confusing, 9 of the 12 études are subtitled as Variations 1 to 9, with Études 3 and 9 left without a variation number. In the second edition of 1852, Études 3 and 9 were omitted completely, along with some minor revisions to the piano writing.

If you want a little more confusion, remember that originally there were a total of 16 Fricken variations, but only 11 were included in the published Symphonic Études. Brahms published the five left out as Posthumous Variations in 1890 and nowadays most pianists include these in their performances. Faliks addresses the issue of these five in a very personal way. As she explains in her superb booklet essay, her choices impact the emotional arch of the entire piece. She is successful at placing them where they speak most powerfully and dramatically. Posthumous Variations 1 and 2 come after Étude 3, P. Var. 3 after Étude 5, P. Var. 4 after Étude 8, and P. Var. 5 after Étude 11. I was quite taken with the insertion of P. Var. 5 between Étude 11 and the Finale. It means that Faliks arrives at DI Major one variation before the Finale, but the quiet beauty of Étude 11 is extended by P. Var. 5 in a most convincing way.

The Symphonic Études are considered among the most difficult of Robert’s large-scale composition and Faliks is up to every demand. Although there are only three dotted rhythms in the Theme, Robert has a predilection for this rhythm all through his music (especially here in Variations 1, 2, 4, 7, 8, and 12). The rhythmic accuracy of Faliks playing brings extra interest and even a snap to these variations. The composer also uses repeated notes or chords in his accompaniments. If played straight, despite what’s going on in the bass and melody, the variation can drag on. Not here! Variation 2 is a perfect example. Faliks plays each group of repeated chords with forward movement and dynamic shaping. Her quiet, breathless opening of the staccato Étude 9, marked Presto possibile, puts Faliks is in a league with some of the greatest pianists to record this work.

She does face formidable competition from greats like Richter, Kempff, Gilels, and Ashkenazy, to name a few. That her album concept is unique and her exceptional pianism backs it up is all the reason you need to add this to your library. I asked Faliks what her future plans were for this series and she responded, “I think the next disc will have Davidsbundlertanze of Robert and possibly the great Variations (op. 20) of Clara as well as her Mazurka quoted by Robert at the opening of Davidsbundlertanze. The challenge is to find works that truly complement each other, highlighting contrasting qualities but also letting the pieces shine individually – like an artistic exchange between two kindred spirits, which they certainly were.”  With the superb recorded sound of her Yamaha DCFX and high production values all around, I am certain to be on the lookout for all future volumes in this series.  James Harrington


Amazon rating = 5 stars     Heading = “Robert and Clara Schumann – Kindred Spirits”

  1. La Campanella, Paganini - Liszt Inna Faliks 4:53
  2. Rzewski "The People United Shall Never Be Defeated" (excerpt, improvised cadenza) Inna Faliks 8:36
  3. Beethoven Eroica Variations Inna Faliks 9:59
  4. Gershwin: Prelude 3 in E-flat Minor Inna Faliks 1:25
  5. Mozart Piano Concerto #20 - II Inna Faliks with Chamber Orchestra of St. Matthews 10:27
  6. Gaspard de la Nuit (1908) : Scarbo - Ravel Inna Faliks 9:07
  7. Sirota by Lev 'Ljova' Zhurbin Inna Faliks 7:45