Shoko Inoue @ Gallery 345 by Stanley Fefferman

Monday, November 22, 2010, Gallery 345, Toronto.

Shoko Inoue navigated a nine-foot Baldwin through the turbulent waters of two Schumann grand sonatas, the F sharp minor, Op. 11, and the F minor Op.14.  To express the wonder of the journey she opens in her playing, I’m drawn to Leonard Cohen’s lines, “Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river/ You can hear the boats go by…/ And she feeds you tea and oranges/ That come all the way from China…”

Ms. Inoue plays barefoot, which is a way of bolding the notion that she is in touch with her instrument. This preference also supports the improvisational nature of her style, which suits the loose, improvisational structure of the F sharp minor, Op. 11. This early sonata (1835) has been described as a novel that chronicles the early stages of Schumann’s quest to win his future wife, the pianist and composer, Clara Wieck, away from her formidable father.

In Ms. Inoue’s playing of the opening movement, you can hear dire, conflicted tones, tender gay and lively passages referencing Clara’s ballet music, the passionate impulses of the composer’s earlier “Fandango” , and passages of slow, sensual romance, all further elaborated in the stormy, brilliantly colourful development section. A melancholy reprise closes this movement, and is succeeded, without a break, by the Aria.

This second movement draws its lovely, romantic theme from A Song Without Words by Felix Mendelssohn. Ms. Inoue excels in articulating detail in the darker passages and in endowing her high notes with a sense of impermanence and death that haunts even the most blissful passages—a mark of her intuitive intelligence.

The music flows into the quirky, declamatory stream of the Scherzo that features an ecstatic but calm second subject and a driving, dramatic Intermezzo at its core. The final Rondo brims with melodic variations that reflect the agony and ecstasy, the bluster and bliss of Schumann’s alter  egos—Florestan and Eusebius. Ms. Inoue explores the depths of the dark end of the keyboard, recalls and interrogates the idyllic second theme of the first movement before resolving the tale with some strange harmonics and closing it off with a brilliantly virtuosic coda.

Ms. Inoue’s account of Schumann’s  F minor Op.14 (1836-1853) released a flood of feeling so intensely polarized that by the final movement I began to pick out hints of  other harmonically enriched melancholy love-songs such as the Beatles’ “You Never Give Me Your Money,” and “Eleanor Rigby.” Her playing revealed the mercurial nature of Schumann’s mind that  can slide in a few bars from a Chopinesque romance into a gnarly tangle of paranoia and thence into the tiny, innocent voices featured a few years later his own Kinderszenen (1838).

Ms. Inoue mentioned that the brilliance of this work can be appreciated by realizing that many of it themes are simply Schumann’s variations of a single melody devised by Clara. The effortless flow of variations feels like Schumann’s way of using scale runs and arpeggios to overcome emotional complications, as a hunted hare switches and shunts to escape the dogs whose relentless tread we hear repeated in chords of “Doom” during the third variation of the Scherzo.

An energetic, syncopated Finale reaches the end of this voyage with a touch of the majestic—beyond happy and sad.

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