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Kai Schumacher: Insomnia
Hanssler Classic

Among other things, Kai Schumacher's Insomnia might be the most impeccably sequenced recording I've heard in recent memory. After easing the listener into the recording with George Gershwin's “Sleepless Night,” the pianist turns his attention to surprisingly accessible works by John Cage and George Crumb and then finishes out the album with two contemporary pieces by Brian Belet and Bruce Stark—all different, of course, but all also united by the titular theme. Schumacher's a formally schooled musician whose ears aren't shut to what's happening outside the classical world; if anything, his connections extend even more deeply into other genres than other musicians of his ilk. After a debut album featuring his rendering of Frederic Rzewski's The People United Will Never be Defeated, the German pianist turned his attention to musical favourites of his youth, among them Nirvana, Slayer, and Rage Against The Machine, on 2013's Transcriptions.

Described in the liner notes as a “nocturnal odyssey,” Insomnia announces another shift in focus, this one as much conceptual as musical. Its “five hymns to the night” by American composers guide the listener through a sleep-deprived individual's restless night with Crumb's twenty-two-minute A Little Midnight Music the centerpiece. What bolsters its accessibility is that it's an inspired adaptation by Crumb of Monk's “Round Midnight,” and consequently anyone familiar with the original will recognize immediately the traces of its haunting themes that repeatedly surface. Crumb naturally subjects the tune to all manner of avant-garde abstraction, however, with its melodies reduced to cubistic fragments and keyboard playing augmented by strums of its inner strings and percussive knocks on the piano frame. Multiple moods are explored in the nine sections, from the turbulent (“Cobweb and Peaseblossom”) to the demonic (“Incantation”), and Crumb even extends Monk's world into Debussy's via “Golliwog Revisited,” during which echoes of “Golliwog's Cakewalk” (from Children's Corner) understandably surface.

Wishing to capture the intimate late-night mood of Gershwin's “Sleepless Night,” Schumacher recorded the piece on an old jazz club piano as opposed to the concert grand used for the other settings. The slightly aged character of the instrument is clearly audible, but the bluesy setting as written already has loads of charm going for it, and Schumacher's sensitive rendering only adds to its appeal. Composed in 1948 to accompany a piece of choreography by Merce Cunningham, Cage's Dream further weakens the connections to conscious reality by serenading the listener with a dream-like flow of rising and falling patterns. With the resonance of the pedal added to the presentation, the music assumes a Satie-like delicacy that acts like an administered sleep narcotic.

The album takes its boldest plunge in Belet's Summer Phantoms: Nocturne (2010/2011), an oft-nightmarish setting that incorporates electronics, sweeping textures in this case derived exclusively from sounds inside the piano. The material takes abrupt and unexpected turns throughout, as if to replicate the violent tossing and turning of the insomniac during particularly unsettled episodes. Comparatively less unnerving is Stark's single-movement Urban Nocturnes (2014), which at album's end returns the listener to a welcome state of early morning calm, the nocturnal journey now over. A number of bravura runs early on in the piece make Schumacher's technical abilities as a pianist abundantly clear, but it's actually a rare display of virtuosity on an excellent album more characterized by understatement.

October 2015