Over the course of many visits to the Gardner Museum, Finnish pianist Paavali Jumppanen has put together a number of ambitious projects, including complete cycles of the Mozart and Beethoven piano sonatas, the Beethoven violin sonatas (with violinist Corey Cerovsek), and Messiaen’s mammoth “Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus.”
But his new project is almost certainly the most unusual. On Sunday, Jumppanen begins a series that brings together solo piano works by Robert Schumann and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Schumann’s “Abegg Variations” and “Humoreske” will be interwoven with Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke IX and XI. Two additional concerts pairing the über-Romantic with the mad genius of the 20th century will follow over the coming year, and it is hard to think of an odder pairing for a multi-concert series.
“The idea is not to be provocative,” the pianist said with a laugh during a recent conversation from his studio outside Helsinki. Still, he conceded, “it’s not an obvious combination.” One wanted to know: Beyond the immediately apparent facts that both were German composers who wrote a substantial amount of piano music early in their careers, what else do they share? Why do they make good conversation partners in a series like this?
Jumppanen began by pointing out that our customary view of Stockhausen as a great radical and Schumann as a traditionalist is distorted by our historical vantage point. Stockhausen’s innovations are well known, from exploding technology’s role in music to his experiments with form. Klavierstück XI is one of his most famous open-form pieces, in which a series of fragments is to be played by the pianist in whatever order he or she wishes.
But Jumppanen insisted that Schumann was in the avant-garde of his own time, particularly when it comes to the idea of musical form. The idea of creating a cycle out of a series of very short character pieces, which Schumann pioneered, was radical for its time. “So, what we really have here are two innovators on the piano,” he said.
Jumppanen also pointed out that both composers were strongly influenced by extramusical arts: Stockhausen by modernist painting and architecture and Schumann by literature. For the “Humoreske” Schumann drew inspiration from the German writer Jean Paul, telling a friend he had “learned more counterpoint from him than from my music teacher.”
And finally, there is the way that each composer forms what Jumpannen called “a secret bond with the performer.” Schumann sometimes includes music in his scores not meant to be played, such as the series of notes labeled “Sphnixes” in the cycle “Carnaval” or what he labels the “inner voice” in “Humoreske.” “They aren’t supposed to be performed,” Jumppanen explained. “Only the performer is supposed to sense it, or hear it, in a particular way.” And he sees a similar sort of covenant in a Stockhausen piece like Klavierstück XI, where the composer turns over responsibility for the ultimate construction and feel of the piece to the performer.
In a reminder of past projects, Jumppanen has recorded all the Beethoven sonatas, and the first volume has just been released on the Ondine label. Even in this well-worn territory the pianist manages to surprise, not least for the ornamentation and improvisatory flourishes he adds during repeats in two of the early Opus 2 sonatas. This is not a widespread practice in an age where adherence to the letter of the musical text is virtually sacred.
Jumpannen said that he added those embellishments as “a way for me to understand the enormous amount of repeats in the early sonatas.” Because so much of the material returns, “the performer can shape it a little bit differently” the second time around. He has already gotten some resistance to this strategy; still, he said once again, “it’s not supposed to be provocative.”
New opera trilogy
Beth Morrison, the enterprising indie opera producer already well known in New York, will bring an ambitious new project to Boston in September 2016. Morrison, a graduate of Boston University, will produce “Ouroboros,” a trilogy of operas that “explores life, death, and rebirth symbolized by the ancient icon of the snake eating its own tail,” her company said in a press release.
The trilogy was conceived by Cerise Lim Jacobs, librettist and creator of the opera “Madame White Snake,” and her late husband, Charles M. Jacobs. “Madame White Snake,” which was commissioned and premiered by Opera Boston and won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Music, is the central opera in the trilogy. Opening the cycle will be “Naga,” composed by Emerson College faculty member Scott Wheeler, a co-commission with Boston Lyric Opera. Closing the trilogy will be “Gilgamesh” by Paola Prestini, an Italian-born composer and cofounder of the New York-based performance collective VisionIntoArt.
Michael Counts will direct all three operas. They will be performed individually and as seven-hour, full-day events.
For more information visit ouroborostrilogy.com/HOME.html.
David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes