Mishka Rushdie Momen on Variations
Fast-rising pianist Mishka Rushdie Momen makes an original debut with an album of variations - four works responding to a theme from Schumann's Bunte Blätter, including two world premieres, as well as Schumann's own variations on a theme by Clara Wieck, who would later become his wife. Mendelssohn's mighty Variations sérieuses, written as his contribution to efforts to create a monument to Beethoven in Bonn, sit at the centre of the programme.
It's a highly varied album, with clear and ever-present underlying ideas tying its different strands together into a coherent whole. I spoke to Mishka about the various works she's chosen for her first solo recording.
The common thread binding much of this programme together is that haunting theme by Robert Schumann from Bunte Blätter. Why do you think it’s been such a popular source of inspiration for so many composers, both then and in our own time?
This theme is such a wonderful link between Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann and Brahms. She presented it to Robert on his birthday with the dedication, “To my beloved husband on the 8th of June 1853 this humble, renewed essay by his old Clara” – and when she performed them to Brahms the following year, he was so impressed that he was inspired to write his own set on the same theme, the Variations Op. 9. Struck by how distinct and characteristic their responses were to this same theme, I was curious to hear different modern interpretations of this idea too, and approached my friends Vijay Iyer and Nico Muhly, who wrote these very special pieces for this album.
The Clara Schumann and Brahms variation sets both begin with a statement of the Schumann melody; did you approach it the same way for each, or do the different contexts require different performances?
Of course no two performances will ever be the same, and it’s possible there could be some subconscious differences in my interpretations, but I think it is in the variations that the true contrasts lie.
Why do you think this practice of writing variations on a friend or colleague’s theme seems to have been so common among German Romantic pianists?
The borrowing of material has always been common; for Clara and Robert it was also often a way to send coded messages to each other. For example, he described his Sonata op. 11 as “A cry from my heart to yours….in which your theme [a falling scale of five notes] appears in every possible form”. And after Beethoven, the variation form itself was also revitalised; the conventions of the structure became an inspiration rather than a restraint.
Although interest in her music has been on the increase for some time, Clara Schumann is still probably the least-studied of the Romantic musicians on this album, and had a formidable reputation as a concert-pianist from her early teens - what do her Variations tell us about her technical skill as a pianist, and were they originally written for public or private performance?
It is clear that she must have been a remarkable musician, with a wonderful sense of taste and proportion. We know that she detested the idea of virtuosity for the sake of exhibition, however difficult her music is to play. As a gift to Robert, there is a quality in this work that I find incredibly honest and almost naïve, in the most touching sense; she allows his theme so much room to breathe and develop in each variation.
Basing most of an album around the ways different composers have responded to one single theme is a fascinating idea to start from; do you think you might do something similar with future recordings?
In all projects I love to find a unifying idea or narrative which links all the works in the programme, so that each piece informs and reveals something about the others. I think that a meaningful programme should be its own entity; somehow amounting to more than the sum of its parts.