Pianist Christina Kobb plays Schubert, Robert and Clara Schumann, Grieg, and Liszt in her Carnegie Hall Debut
Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall
DCINY Artist Series
Friday, February 24, 2017, 8:00pm
Christina Kobb, Piano
R. Schumann/F. Liszt: Liebeslied: Widmung (1840/1860)
Schubert – Piano Sonata in A Minor, D. 537 (1817)
Grieg – Drei Phantasiestücke (1861; published in 1863 as Vier Stücke, Op. 1)
1. Allegro con leggierezza
2. Non allegro e molto espressivo
4. Allegro con moto
C. Schumann – Selections from 4 Pièces caractéristiques, Op. 5 (1833-36)
4. Scène fantastique: le ballet des revenants
R. Schumann – Piano Sonata in F Sharp minor No. 1, op. 11 (1833-35)
I recently heard three piano programs, almost back-to-back, in Weill Hall. Each pianist produced a strikingly different sound from the same instrument, Weill’s beautiful house Steinway. The pianists and their programs were so very different that it is not so very difficult to resist the temptation to discuss them in a single review, although there are some common threads, for example Romanticism and Schubert. In fact, you’ll find I’m writing rather a lot about those subjects at the moment.
First comes the Carnegie Hall debut—close to sold out—of a brilliant young pianist from Norway, Christina Kobb, who emerges in this recital as not only an outstanding scholar and historical instrument specialist, but a master of the modern piano of impressive musicianship and sophistication. Her understanding of the music and her playing was not at all like what one would expect from a young musician at the beginning of her career, but a fully developed accomplishment, showing impressive musical and emotional maturity.
Ms. Kobb is currently nearing completion of her doctoral dissertation, Restoring a practice of the past: Piano playing in 1820s Vienna (Click here for the abstract). In her research she has studied the specific techniques for playing the fortepiano and early pianofortes, set forth in keyboard methods of the early nineteenth century. Of these, Johann Nepomuck Hummel’s Ausführliche theoretisch-praktische Anweisung zum Piano-Forte-Spiel, published in 1827 is especially interesting, since, as a pupil of Mozart’s, he can be thought to have drawn his method from the master himself. For around fifty years now some pianists have discovered and adopted the fortepiano, and a small, but talented group of builders have been supplying them with reproductions of fortepianos from the lifetimes of Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert, but hardly anyone has looked back to the treatises on technique of the time. Malcolm Bilson, a pioneer in this movement, describes how he learned to play an antique instrument empirically, with great difficulty, in an interview with Andrew Willis.1 When I have mentioned Ms. Kobb’s work to players, they are invariably amazed and fascinated. They learned like Mr. Bilson and never thought to consult Hummel and his colleagues. By following their treatises, she finds that she can solve many pianistic problems more effectively and more easily. As both she and Bilson have observed, pedaling becomes much less indispensable, and parallel octaves easier to execute.
Ms. Kobb holds degrees (Cand. Mag. in piano teaching, BA fortepiano performance) and MA from the Norwegian Academy of Music (NAM), Royal Conservatoire of The Hague (BA, MA (cum laude) of fortepiano performance, with teachers Bart van Oort and Stanley Hoogland, and was honored to receive a one-year studentship to the renowned Cornell University to study with prof. Malcolm Bilson (2009/10). Christina has appeared at various occasions in Norway, England, The Netherlands and the U.S. with solo recitals and chamber music concerts. She is the proud recipient of Pianist Nils Larsen’s bequest of 2016. Earlier in her career, she won the accompanist prize of The John Kerr Award for English song (2006) at Finchcocks Musical Museum in Kent, England, and she received the Muzio Clementi Award (2008). In 2007, she was awarded the coveted TICON scholarship. These impressive academic achievements should not distract us from the simple fact, so amply proven in this recital, that she is a thoughtful and sensitive musician with a strong ability to communicate the feeling and intent of the composers that lie behind the notes. For more about Ms. Kobb, I refer to you her website and to the interview I conducted with her in New York last year.
It is true that Ms. Kobb considered playing an historical instrument in this recital, but none of the appropriate period was available in New York outside a museum. A fortepiano would only have been suitable for the early works by Schubert (1817) and the Schumanns (1833-36). However, she addressed the Weill Hall instrument with confidence and a sympathy for its tonal warmth. Her ability to separate the upper, lower, and middle registers (much more easily accomplished on an historical instrument) was almost uncanny. The best pianists are able to reveal the musical structures inherent in what the music sounded like to the composer, but few are actually able to bring it to life on a modern piano. What Ms. Kobb has learned from Hummel and his contemporaries helps with a modern piano as well. And this she explained most effectively in a brief essay which was distributed to the audience on a flyer.
Ms. Kobb’s program consisted not only of closely related Romantic piano pieces, it told a story, explained with learning and warmth in her program notes—the story of Robert Schumann’s love for Clara Wieck and the obstacles they encountered on the path to marriage. The program began with a retrospective work, Franz Liszt’s famous setting of Schumann’s song, Widmung (“Dedication”). Liszt arranged a great many songs by Schubert, Schumann and others for solo piano, so that he could include them in his recitals. Liszt made it in 1860, four years after Schumann’s early death and twenty years after Schumann wrote the original song, indeed a dedication to Clara, whom he was finally able to marry that year. This provided an effective focal point and starting point for Ms. Kobb’s exploration of the relationship of Robert and Clara Schumann and its relationship to Romanticism, which was so closely related to intimate relationships and culture of love. Her separation of the registers worked wonders for Liszt’s transcription, as did the warm sound she drew from the piano. Although her technique put her in absolute mastery of the more virtuosic passages, she downplayed this aspect of the piece in favor of the fervor of Schumann’s music.
There followed a youthful sonata by Schubert, which is rarely played in public. Schubert wrote it at the age of twenty, in 1817, when his individual personality was just emerging as a composer. The primary theme of the “slow” movement (Allegretto quasi Andantino) is the beautiful melody he used in the last movement of the Sonata in A major he wrote in the month before his death in 1828. At twenty Schubert gave it a rather jauntier treatment than in his maturity, with a springy bass figure absent in the more lyrical later version. Ms. Kobb has devoted quite a lot of study to the problem of how to maintain a crisp bass, reminiscent of plucked guitar strings, while making the parallel octaves in the right hand sing. Many pianists trained in modern technique will pedal as much as they need to to create a legato in the right hand, sacrificing the clarity of the bass, in fact making a mush of it. Kobb’s studies of the keyboard technique of Schubert’s own time have shown her how to render the bass with perfect clarity and to phrase the melody beautifully with a minimum of pedal. Her playing of the Allegretto was impeccable, and the clarity with which she played enabled her to bring out the young composer’s many strokes of genius in his variations of the rhythms, phrasing, and harmonies, showing this to be an impressively original composition—more so than is apparent in a routine performance. This performance was not only the result of scholarship and musical application, but a colorful and sensitive revelation of an underestimated piece.
Next Ms. Kobb turned to her countryman Edvard Grieg, playing the original three pieces published in his Opus 1, which he offered at the Leipzig Conservatory for his degree in 1861, bringing us back to the time of Liszt’s Schumann arrangement. These are remarkably convincing short character pieces, reflecting Schumann’s influence above others, and recognizable as the work of Grieg. Kobb showed fine judgment in pedaling, texture, and phrasing, and presented strong characterizations of these early works, as she did for the colorful, but less substantial Pièces characteristiques by Clara Wieck (1833-36, i.e. before her marriage to Schumann, when she was aged 14 to 17).
The longest and most ambitious work on the program was Schumann’s Sonata No. 1 in F sharp minor, an early work (Op. 11) which he wrote between 1832 and 1835, dedicating it to the 16-year-old Clara, “from Florestan and Eusebius.” As Ms. Kobb points out in her notes, Clara is known to have played the piece constantly in 1835 and 1836 before its actual publication, including for Mendelssohn and Moscheles. When Schumann sent her a copy of the published edition, Clara’s father refused to allow her to acknowledge its receipt, but he could not stop the affinities and exchanges between them, with which the ambitious work is imbued. Another result of Schumann’s having written the sonata for Clara is the brilliant virtuosity that runs through it, reaching a climax in the finale—which Ms. Kobb was more than able to execute without compromise. Her performance had all the bravura one could want as well as the intimate expression she has so finely cultivated in her playing and in her background studies. As an encore she played one of Hummel’s Grandes Études, works which have been especially central to her research. The audience loved it, as they well should have.
This was an especially rich debut concert for New York—rich in scholarship, thought, sensitivity, musicality and maturity—and promises a rewarding future for lovers of piano music, as Christina Kobb pursues her research and develops her repertory. We can look forward to hearing her again in some twelve to eighteen months.
- Jouez le Fortepiano! An Interview with Malcolm Bilson,” Early Music America, 12(3), 28-32. ↩