Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Keys to Romance in Review
Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presents Keys to Romance
Christina Kobb, piano
Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
February 24, 2017
As part of their Artist Series concerts, Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presented Norwegian pianist Christina Kobb in a concert entitled Keys to Romance. Featuring works from Schubert, Grieg, Liszt, and Robert and Clara Schumann, it was a thought-provoking evening, both intellectually and musically.
Christina Kobb is currently working toward a PhD degree at the Norwegian Academy of Music. The focus of her study is the reconstruction of 19th century piano technique from the exploration of treatises and manuals of that time. The goal is to create performances that would sound to us today as they sounded originally. Kobb has lectured about her research, most notably at Harvard in 2016. She was also the focus of an 2015 article in the New York Times that one can read by following this link- New York Times 7/21/15 article. Ms. Kobb has even re-tooled her playing technique to mirror that of her research.
I’m not going to spend a lot of time delving into Ms. Kobb’s thesis – this is a matter that can be left to the academics and performance practice enthusiasts. I could not help wondering, though, whether, if the goal is more authentic performances by using the prevailing technique, it would not also be proper to use the same instrument that was in use at that time, rather than a modern Steinway grand. Perhaps the venue would not allow it.
Ms. Kobb’s program notes were among the best this reviewer has seen. Her style is that of the storyteller, and while she presents musical analysis, it is nothing beyond the grasp of most, regardless of their level of music education. Even though the love story of Robert and Clara is well known, Ms. Kobb recounts the events of their courtship (and roadblocks, courtesy of Clara’s father) with the skill of a novelist that had this listener eagerly awaiting the musical depiction.
The one thing that is immediately apparent about Ms. Kobb is her no-nonsense approach. If one wants extravagant gestures, flashy dress, and indulgent readings, they need to look elsewhere. Ms. Kobb is all about the music. Taking the stage, she sat down at the piano and launched right into Liszt’s transcription of Robert Schumann’s Widmung, which was a clever opening of the love story – present the “happy ending” first (that is, the marriage of Robert and Clara). Ms. Kobb played this much-loved work with a measured passion, of which much may be attributed to the adopted technique. It was a promising opening. Moving on, we heard the A minor Sonata, D. 537, by Schubert, a composer whom Robert Schumann greatly admired (even “discovering” and subsequently enabling the publishing of Schubert’s 9th Symphony). Ms. Kobb offered a well thought out and precise reading.
After the Schubert, Ms. Kobb offered three early works of Edvard Grieg, Drei Fantasiestücke (a Mazurka was added later, and the set published at his Opus 1). Composed in 1861 when the composer was eighteen, these works are heavily influenced by Schumann, a sort of “Grieg before he was Grieg.” I’m not sure what the connection to Robert and Clara was, but it is understandable that a Norwegian would wish to honor Norway’s greatest composer. In any case, Ms. Kobb treated the audience to a reverent performance that in this listener’s opinion exceeded the musical value of the pieces. She ended the first half with two selections from Clara’s Opus 5, the charming Romance, and the Berlioz-like Scene Fantastique: Le Ballet des Revenants. Written in Clara’s early teens, these works make one wonder what Clara’s trajectory as a composer would have been if she had lived in a different time. We can be grateful for her guiding hand in Robert’s works. Ms. Kobb again came fully prepared in an accurate reading.
After intermission, Ms. Kobb offered Robert Schumann’s Sonata No. 1 in F-sharp minor, Op. 11. This work is a musical love letter to Clara. Schumann takes two themes from Clara’s Op. 5 and combines them into a single melody in the first movement – which Clara could have not missed as she played this work. Some couples spoke to each other in letters, but Robert and Clara spoke to each other in music. This was the highlight of the evening for this listener, as Ms. Kobb played this love story with passion while maintaining complete control.
If one wanted to make a suggestion, it would be that Ms. Kobb might play with more spontaneity, even despite the rigors of her special technique. It seems counterintuitive that such romantic works are played with such a cerebral quality. This quibble aside, Ms. Kobb is first and foremost a scholar who does not seem to present herself as a typical touring virtuoso. It is clear to this reviewer that she should excel in lecture recitals, particularly to audiences of academics even more than to lay audiences. She believes wholeheartedly in her mission, and that belief will take her far.
The filled hall gave Ms. Kobb a standing ovation at the end.