Concert pianist Caroline Oltmanns releases the concept album GHOSTS on the Filia Mundi label. GHOSTS delves into the space between reality and imagination—a soundscape exploring inner dialogue with works by Schumann, Brahms, Chopin, and Wilding.
With a strong emphasis on the Germanic piano repertoire, Ms. Oltmanns displays a keen sense of musical storytelling in GHOSTS. The centerpiece of the album is Schumann’s Ghost Variations. This rarely heard work is one of the composer’s last works ever written before he was admitted into an institution due to his schizophrenia and attempted suicide. Ghost Variations was closely guarded thereafter for over 130 years. Only in the 1990s did a facsimile appear from the manuscript’s private owner. This explains why the work is infrequently recorded and performed, and provides the groundwork for Ms. Oltmanns’ uncommon concept album GHOSTS.
Ms. Oltmanns commissioned South African composer James Wilding to write connecting programmatic pieces depicting ghostly voices: Sphinxes, Voices, Ghost-Fantasy, and Rising Subconscious. This new music adds a touch of calculated pacing between album performances of Schumann, Chopin, and Brahms.
Award-winning, Estonian photographer Kaupo Kikkas captured shadowy images of Ms. Oltmanns reflecting the essence of this album.
Pianist: Caroline Oltmanns
Recording Engineer: Udo Wüstendörfer
Piano: Steinway & Sons, Hamburg
Recording Venue: Reitstadel in Neumarkt, Germany
Label: Filia Mundi Records
Distribution: Amazon, iTunes, Spotify, CD Baby
Photography: Kaupo Kikkas
1-22: CARNAVAL Op. 9 (Robert Schumann)
This opening movement is a majestic march followed by buzzing excitement as if a crowd gathers. The movement is interspersed with motives that will appear throughout the whole cycle.
Pierrot is a clown character of the commedia dell’arte with a white sad face and white loose fitting clothes. In Schumann’s Carnaval, Pierrot is depicted as a rough moody drunk.
Harlequin is a light-hearted and nimble servant character of the commedia dell’arte. His attributes of an agile trickster have made Harlequin a favorite comedy figure.
4. Valse noble
This is a majestic waltz, possibly a musical interlude in the Carnival party.
One of the composer’s alter egos, Eusebius is a shy and introverted fictitious character used as one of the contributors to Schumann’s publications.
Another alter ego character of the composer, Florestan is the opposite of Eusebius, a passionate extrovert depicted with brilliant self-interruptions, sudden ideas, and quotes from Schumann’s own Opus 2, Papillon.
Coquette is a female character who likes to win the attention or admiration of men, but does not have serious feelings for them. Schumann describes this character in the most irresistibly charming way.
8. Réplique/response, reaction
A follow up on the character “Coquette,” this musical response takes over its thematic material into a duet. Perhaps Madame Coquette’s flirtation was successful.
9. Sphinxes (James Wilding)
A Sphinx is a mute legendary Greek figure with a human head and a lion’s body. Sometimes the term is used to describe an enigmatic person. Schumann notates these three small pieces in silent notation using letters of the German alphabet that can be used in musical notation. Many performers skip this small segment. For this performance, composer James Wilding created a work using not only those musical notes Schumann wrote, but also quotes from Johannes Brahms’ Intermezzo in B minor Op. 119, No. 1.
Johannes Brahms was a close family friend of Clara and Robert Schumann. In Wilding’s composition, the silence of the Sphinxes is reflected in a silent note segment paying tribute to Schumann’s idea of the Sphinxes. Recurring flurries of notes remind the listener of Schumann’s ongoing battle with manic depressive disorder.
10. Papillons/butterfly, bow tie
A French term describing a social butterfly, a young man who likes to party, and to enjoy an active social life. Horn calls at the beginning might be a satiric reference to “hunting season.” The French term “papillon” for a social butterfly is now outdated, but was common in Schumann’s lifetime.
11. A.S.C.H. – S.C.H.A: Lettres Dansantes/dancing letters
The city of Asch was the birthplace of Robert Schumann’s fiancé Ernestine von Fricken. The engagement never materialized. Here the German music notation letters A-flat, E-flat, C, and B-natural are dancing—as if in imagination or reality—is left to the creative listener.
A depiction of Clara Wieck, who was 16 years old at the time of the composition of Carnaval. In this piece Schumann pays homage to Clara as a strong girl with lots of charm and depth.
This movement is dedicated to Frederic Chopin who was Robert Schumann’s three-month-older contemporary.
Dedicated to Ernestine von Fricken, this piece reflects the nobility and pride of Schumann’s fiancée at the time.
This is a scene about the joy of recognizing somebody at a party. The middle section describes a dialogue between two people and the outer sections depict the excitement of recognition.
16. Pantalon et Colombine
Both Pantalon and Colombine are stock figures from the classic improvisation theater commedia dell’arte. Intelligence, money, and ego are the main characteristics of Pantalon who is often depicted as an old widower making passes at young ladies.
17. Valse allemande
Schumann presents a dance interlude, which is a typical German Waltz interrupted by the appearance of Niccolo Paganini.
18. Intermezzo: Paganini
This scene evokes the sudden appearance of Nicolo Paganini, the famous and enigmatic concert violinist. The Paganini movement leads back to the Valse allemande now to be played faster, as if the dancers were electrified by Paganini’s appearance.
In this scene, a confession—perhaps of love—leaves room for speculations.
20. Promenade/walk, stroll
As the party builds momentum, the crowd gathers in anticipation of the final two scenes.
The penultimate scene recalls motifs from the opening—a crazy whirlwind without tune and a buzzing rush before the final culmination.
22. Marche der "Davidsbündler" contre les Philistins/March of the League of David against the Philistines
Schumann created the League of David, a fictitious literary society, to defend contemporary music against its detractors. Its two leading members were Eusebius and Florestan (see Movements 5 and 6). The established society fought against the influences of the “Philistines,” representing the stuffy and old-fashioned bourgeoisie. Quotations of previous scenes in combination with the march theme are ‘interrupted’ twice by the Grandfather Dance, a 17th century German folk tune, representing the inartistic and arcane. An overall increasing tempo leads the movement to an exciting finale and to the victorious conclusion of Robert Schumann’s Carnaval.
23: VOICES (James Wilding)
PASSAGE: This work is about voices Schumann heard in his head. It connects the end of Carnaval to the beginning of the Ghost Variations theme. Seemingly chaotic flurries represent his manic state of mind.
24-30: GEISTERVARIATIONEN/GHOST VARIATIONS WoO 24 (Robert Schumann)
On February 27, 1854 Robert Schumann attempted to commit suicide by jumping into the Rhine river in his hometown of Düsseldorf, Germany following extreme attacks of mental anguish and schizophrenia that had become increasingly unbearable over the months leading up to this day.
During the previous week, and on this day, a constant perception of symphonic sounds and melodies raged through the composer’s head, dictating him to write the theme of Ghost Variations. Simultaneously, angelic and ghost-like voices commanded him—in his fragile mental state—to attack his oldest daughter and his wife, both of whom he loved dearly. In an exasperated state of mind, he decided to avoid tragedy by attempting to end his life. He left his house in his nightgown and made his way to the river.
Incidentally February 27, 1854 was Rose Monday, the culmination of the feast of Carnival, a traditional street festival with a rich culture of costumes and dances. The streets would have been filled with people wearing elaborate costumes: Pierrot with his white face, the pretty Columbine, and Harlequin with his checkered suit. In the midst of the costume festivities, nobody stopped the odd looking man heading toward the river. A boatman rescued Robert Schumann immediately once he had jumped into the icy water. He was brought back to his house in a desperate state. Soon after his arrival he wrote down five variations on the theme of Ghost Variations. Shortly after this day Schumann was committed to an institution, where he spent the remaining years of his life.
Due to these harrowing events, Clara Schumann - to whom the work is dedicated - jealously guarded the manuscripts of this incomplete work. A facsimile was made available by its private owner only in the 1990s, which explains perhaps why Ghost Variations are not part of the standard repertoire today and why they are rarely heard in performance. Ms. Oltmanns concludes this open ended set by restating the hauntingly beautiful theme as a closing thought.
31: GHOST-FANTASY (James Wilding)
PASSAGE: This bridge connects the theme of Ghost Variations to the theme of Fantasy Impromptu. A mosaic is created of gradually shifting harmonic progressions through which the melodies appear and disappear like drops of memories.
32: FANTASIE IMPROMPTU Op. 66 (Frederic Chopin)
This audience favorite is passionate expression at its best. The middle section is reminiscent to one of the movements in Schumann’s Carnaval called “Chopin.”
33: RISING SUBCONSCIOUS (James Wilding)
PASSAGE: This is a gradual transition from the romantic Fantasie Impromptu to the brilliant Paganini Variations.
34-48: STUDIEN FÜR KLAVIER/STUDIES FOR PIANO (Johannes Brahms)
14 Variationen über ein Thema von Nicolo Paganini Op. 35, 1
Johannes Brahms was one of Robert Schumann's closest friends. One of the movements of Schumann’s Carnaval is called “Paganini,” which is a natural lead into Brahms’ “Paganini Variations.” It is considered one of the most demanding virtuosic works for solo piano repertoire, which might be the reason it is not heard often in concert.