Fri, 14 Oct 1994

Holtmann: Strong and dynamic pianist

By Gus Kairupan

JAKARTA (JP): Solo piano, chamber music, symphonies, art songs, cycles for solo piano ... Robert Schumann touched all these forms of composition and thus the entire vocabulary of classical music.

Particularly noteworthy is the piano cycle, a series of independent pieces built around a central theme. It isn't far wrong to call Schumann the inventor of this form, which, in a way, looks at the song cycle - one form in which Schumann takes place alongside Franz Schubert.

There are five of Schumann's cycles that come to mind: Scenes from Childhood, Carnival, Davidsbundlertanze, Forest Scenes, and Kreisleriana of which the last mentioned was presented by German pianist, Heidrun Holtmann, on Monday at Erasmus Huis. She is the second of a series of four young pianists whose recitals in Jakarta and Bandung are sponsored by Goethe Institute.

Song cycles are of course easier to follow if only because of the words. You don't get these in piano cycles, for which program notes are supplied to help the listener understand what the piece is all about and what its elements are supposed to represent. This isn't so problematic when the title of the piece refers to something concrete like, for example, hunting (Forest Scenes) or a child falling asleep (Scenes from Childhood). But Schumann, in giving titles to his compositions (especially the piano cycles), tends to go into some flights of fancy that aren't always easy to follow. Who on earth is "Eusebius" and/or "Florestan" (Davidsbundlertanze), and what do you mean, mein lieber Herr Schumann, with ASCH (Carnival)? And of course the Kreisler of Kreisleriana isn't the celebrated Fritz, the violinist who was born about 20 years after Schumann died.

Fortunately, music -- good music that is -- can and does speak for itself, even to a degree as to make notes superfluous. You only have to listen to Kreisleriana to come to the conclusion that this Kreisler (apparently a musical director) was a bit of an odd bird. Or that Schumann perhaps unsurprisingly (he went mad), had some odd perceptions regarding Kreisler. The music, however, is exquisitely beautiful and, even without knowing anything about the central theme or reading program notes, you find yourself gripped by the works.


It goes without saying, of course, that the performer must be a top-notch pianist, and that is what Heidrun Holtmann most certainly is. Clarity is one of the major features of her interpretation, making all the melodic strains stand out clearly, and weaving them together into a gorgeous tonal tapestry in which the brilliance of restless vivacity blends with the dark and somber hues of depression and obsession. You need power, physical as well as mental, to make the work come to life, and that is what Holtmann possesses. She displayed this power throughout the recital which, besides Schumann, also included works by Alexander Scriabin, Heinz Holliger -- a German composer of the present -- Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. The power to roar, the power to whisper, to display force and to be tender. How to overwhelm with dense and thunderous chords, even how to make those same chords convey an ethereal lightness as in Scriabin's Poeme-Nocturne. Or to create an atmosphere through pianistic sounds, including running over the instrument's open strings with a hand, in Holliger's Three Nocturnal Pieces for Piano about death and deliverance. Splashes and spikes of seemingly random note combinations moving and floating over the reverberating drone of open strings out of which arises an other-worldliness that at least to me had something of a hypnotic effect. Holliger's work seems to be one that needs good acoustics because it isn't only the piano's sounds that are important, the reverberations too are significant to experience (not merely to listen to) the composition. In this respect, the hall at Erasmus Huis amply fills the bill.

Holtmann's recital was just part of the program. The second half featured compositions by Debussy and Ravel, and for all her strengths and powers, this was the section that was somewhat lacking in the subtlety of impressionism, especially the Debussy preludes. Quite often the dynamics (e.g. in What the West Wind Saw) were so starkly contrasting that one got the impression of listening to Wagner rather than to a protagonist of a school that emphasizes understatement. Both Debussy and Ravel are categorized as impressionist composers, but in Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit clashing dynamics are not so much out of place. But then, the shape of Ravel's works are more pronounced, more visible, compared to those of Debussy who hints at a shape rather than giving it a more concrete outline.

This, however, does not make Holtmann any less of an artist. Like the recital given by her predecessor in the series, hers was an excellent exposition of the capabilities of today's younger generation of German pianists. One looks forward to Claudius Tanski and Rolf Plagge.