February 3rd, 2016

Schumann’s Piano Quintet is one of Joyce Yang’s favorite chamber music pieces, and she has played it in ongoing collaborations with ensembles like the Takács, Modigliani and Alexander String Quartets. The New York Times praised her “vivid and beautiful playing” on her recording of the Schumann with the Alexanders, and on February 18 she returns to the piece with the Modiglianis, presented by the Phoenix Chamber Music Society.  

I sometimes wonder when I play a favorite piece like the Schumann Quintet with different quartets, am I cheating on the other groups? Because you come back and you’re a little changed. In a rehearsal they’ll say, 'What are you doing?' And I realize, ooh, right, that’s someone else’s markings.

Joyce says, “I sound different with different quartets. The Schumann sounds different. But there are signature moments I always ask a quartet to do when I get to certain sections – a place I like to bring out the bass notes or work with the second violin – something no one would notice because they’re not highlights of the piece, but they tickle me. While the big landscape of the piece may be very different depending on whom I’m performing with, my favorite little moments – my favorite flowers in the valley – are constant. These are my secret spots.

“The way Schumann portrays himself in his scores is so personal; it speaks to me that someone is telling me his innermost thoughts. There’s no small talk in Schumann’s music; no fillers. There’s an honesty I really appreciate. It’s forever difficult to make that creative voice into something that feels inevitable – where all of Schumann’s twists and turns make sense. The texture of the music can be really wormy, with meandering suspensions that have little to do with the melody. If I play loudly when this happens in the Quintet it would be an interruption. I need to let it swim as an undercurrent to the string players, but also give weight to the unresolved tension.

“There’s a place in the final movement that is one of my favorite moments: a Disney Land ride where you miss the exit and can’t get off until it comes around again. It’s like you said goodbye five minutes ago, then Schumann lingers with a pair of “turnarounds.” The first time you turn around the person you said goodbye to isn’t there anymore. But then you turn around again after a small, surprising fugal section and they’re still not there. There’s something incredibly touching about that second turn... Sometimes a quartet plays the second time as beautifully as the first, but I feel, no, it has to be broken – a different color – that you gave up something more. It’s a beautiful private moment of hushed poetry. Then Schumann shifts the mood away from his heartbreak and we see the finish line as he propels us forward into a jolly march that drives this glorious quintet to a celebratory close.”

Listen to the Schumann Piano Quintet on Spotify.

Buy CD at Amazon