As he demonstrated at his Noontime Concerts™ recital (“San Francisco’s Musical Lunch Break”) last August, pianist Brian Connor is not afraid of ambitious challenges in the repertoire. The core of today’s program was one of Robert Schumann’s most significant achievements for a variety of reasons, his Opus 17 fantasy in C major. Schumann composed this massive three-movement work in 1836 and dedicated it to Franz Liszt. This should be enough to raise expectations that this work will demand the height of virtuoso piano technique, but it is far from just a display of flamboyantly expressive pianism.
Most important is that Opus 17 may be regarded as a retrospective reflection on past compositions that provided the foundation upon which it was constructed. Of greatest significance the first movement concludes with a reference to a closing motif from Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 98 song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte (to the distant beloved).
This citation may well have served two purposes. On the one hand it provided Schumann with an opportunity to acknowledge Beethoven, whom he admired as much as Liszt did. At the same time his relationship with Clara Wieck was still clandestine, since her father disapproved, making Clara the composer’s own “distant beloved.”
However, the story behind Opus 17 has become even more interesting in the context of some recent research undertaken by András Schiff but inspired by the late Charles Rosen. Rosen learned that the Széchényi Library in Budapest had an early draft of the manuscript with a different ending; and Rosen suggested that, since Schiff lived in Budapest, he should take a look at that manuscript. It turns out that the original ending (vigorously crossed-out on the manuscript paper, as may be seen above) brought the Beethoven theme back and the end of the third movement. Dramatically, this allowed Schumann to conclude the piece with a final nod to Clara; but he rejected this ending in favor of providing Liszt with a much more substantial coda.
Today Connor performed this “preferred” version, like just about every other pianist. Indeed, the only time I have heard the rejected version has been on an ECM New Series recording of Schiff released in October of 2011. Listening to Connor’s performance, however, I became aware of the extent to which the third movement revisits not only the Beethoven motif but most of the other key motifs from the first movement. While the Beethoven reference amounts to direct quotation, the other citations are far more concealed.
Indeed, one may view the entire fantasy is a journey through the devices of virtuoso rhetoric. In many respects in both the first and second movements, Schumann is presenting his own repertoire of rhetorical tropes to Liszt, basically providing Liszt with “source material” for his own style of pianism. In the third movement, however, Schumann extends the scope of his rhetoric to incorporate tropes from Franz Schubert, Frédéric Chopin, and probably Liszt himself. It thus seems appropriate that Beethoven should be allowed to take a “final bow” in the company of some of the other composers who were inspired by his accomplishments. None of this effect was lost in Connor’s approach; but, by choosing Schumann’s preferred coda, he allowed the light to shine on Liszt a bit brighter.
It thus seemed appropriate that he should redirect that light with the two shorter pieces that preceded Opus 17, Beethoven’s WoO 80 set of 32 variations in C minor, composed in 1806, and the first of the three Opus 117 intermezzi in E-flat major by Johannes Brahms. Don’t be fooled by the number of variations in WoO. This composition may be described as “very short variations on a very short theme.” Like the theme itself, the variations go by like lightning; and Connor presented them with an entirely appropriate whirlwind rhetoric of virtuosity. The Brahms intermezzo, on the other hand, was inspired by a Scottish lullaby, in which the rocking quality involves a quarter-note-eighth-note ostinato of E-flat in octaves. Connor approached this with a bit too much persistence, thus detracting a bit from the lullaby qualities; but he still provided a nicely balanced account of the primary theme and the unfolding of the theme in the middle section through arpeggio passages.
Rhetorically, these two selections provided a foretaste of both “Florestan rhetoric” and “Eusebius rhetoric,” respectively, thus establishing an entirely suitable introduction for the far more broadly-scoped Schumann fantasy.