Kinderszenen Ė Moravec/Supraphon
Waldszenen Ė Richter/Deutsche Grammophon, Wirssaladze/Live Classics
Bunte Blätter Ė Richter/Olympia and BBC Legends
I am very pleased that Warner Apex has reissued
these 1984 recordings. Maria-João Pires is a consummate
artist whose performances on record of Schumannís solo piano music
have been infrequent. Until now, we have had to content ourselves
with her reading of the Arabeske on a Philips Great Pianists set
and a Deutsche Grammophon recording highlighted by a 1980 performance
The small Schumann discography of Pires is all
the more regrettable given that she is a splendid Schumann performing
artist as evidenced by these exceptional performances on Warner
Apex. Pires consistently delves into Schumannís inner world and
gives each piece of music the emotional content it requires in
stunning and technically adept fashion.
The majority of Schumannís best works from his
early period involve his imaginary alter egos Florestan and Eusebius.
Florestan is the man of action who proceeds immediately and with
intense determination. Eusebius is the thinker who offers insight
but accomplishes nothing. These Schumann works, such as Carnaval
and Kreisleriana, are a mix of red-hot fire, wild abandon, sudden
and extreme mood swings, and heart-piercing poetry.
Kinderszenen has nothing to do with Florestan
and Eusebius, instead being Schumannís perceptions of childhood.
Naturally, since Schumann was a young man when he wrote the work,
the emotional content of Kinderszenen is a blend of child and
adult. A performance that dwells too strongly on the child loses
its sense of nostalgia and regret, while one that dwells on the
adult loses its innocence and exuberance.
I can confidently report that the Pires interpretation
fully reflects both the awe of the child and the life experience
of the adult in moving performances that alternately sparkle,
excite, and offer compelling nuance and poignancy. Most favorable,
as with the greatest of Kinderszenen performances, Pires is able
to express child and adult in a single note.
The expression of a dual theme in one note immediately
takes shape in "Foreign lands and people" where Pires
beautifully blends the awe of the childís world with the adultís
nostalgia concerning places visited and regret about missed opportunities.
"Curious story" finds Pires in a bubbly and energized
mood thatís irresistible, and she uses a delightful staccto in
the melody line of "Catch me".
My favorite Pires scene is "Pleading child"
where her pleading inflections pierce the heart at every turn
and the lower voices provide a subtle tension of wonderful contrast.
The pure joy and exuberance of her reading of
"Happiness" leaps out of the speakers, and "Important
event" receives a regal and demonstrative presentation only
slightly marred by her refusal to wind down at all in the conclusion.
"Dreaming" is the most popular of the
scenes in Kinderszenen routinely programmed in piano recitals;
Pires is excellent here although I find Ivan Moravecís performance
on Supraphon to convey greater poignancy and emotional comfort.
The halting rhythms Pires uses in "By the
fireside" are highly evocative of both child and adult. In
"Knight of the hobby-horse" the excitement she generates
is impressive, and she does so without ever sounding over-bearing
which is an unfortunate trait many pianists fall into. The contrast
of the delicate melody line of "Almost too serious"
set against the musicís urgent emotions from lower voices is completely
captured by Pires, and the despair she conveys at the beginning
of "Being frightened" gives extra meaning to the three
"Slumbering child" is a wonderful piece
of music. Beginning with an introduction of intense melancholy
and reflection, the music unfolds into total bliss. I only wish
that the Pires bliss was a little quieter and more evocative of
a serenely sleeping child.
Kinderszenen ends with a Postulude given by the
Poet who looks back on the history of life and offers his insights
to guide us in future endeavors. Most important in this piece
is the ability of the pianist to give us a guide we can implicitly
trust and follow. Pires certainly delivers the goods with a lovely
reading that emphasizes nostalgia and the hope of enlightenment.
Schumann wrote Waldszenen in late 1848, about
eight years after getting married to his adoring Clara. So much
of Schumannís inner turmoil was caught up by the refusal of Claraís
father to accept him that his music lost some of its edge and
inspiration after the success of winning Claraís hand in marriage.
Still, Waldszenen is an excellent work representing a full day
of hunting game in the forest, exploring nature, sharing companionship,
and contemplating oneís life and dreams.
In "Entrance" we stand at the threshold
of the forest watching the morning mist rise out of the trees,
feeling a mix of serenity, wonder, and the inner currents of anticipation
of the day upon us. Pires conveys these themes simultaneously
with delicacy and a sense of impending adventure.
The second scene, "Hunter in Ambush",
is a dramatic utterance of the excitement of the hunt. There is
also an element of danger and even sinister activities lurking
in the music as the weak are annihilated by the strong. Darwinian
themes may be inevitable, but they arenít always pretty. I love
the sinister treatment Pires imparts, and her drive is admirable.
In the third scene, "Lonely flowers",
I am looking for a subtle display of the sadness of isolation.
Although Pires offers a lovely performance, she canít begin to
approach the sadness offered up by Richter on his Deutche Grammophon
recording. More nuance and variety of tempo and dynamics would
be just the ticket to a mastery of this piece.
"Place of evil" has its origin with
prose of the bleakest nature about the prevalence and dread of
death with some slaughter thrown in for good measure. Amazingly,
most recorded performances do no more than offer a bittersweet
refrain, apparently disregarding the prose. Pires falls into this
category, although she has plenty of company including Richter
and Arrau. For a performance that brings evil to the forefront,
you need to listen to the Russian pianist Elisso Wirssaladze on
Live Classics; she clearly faces evil and lives to tell us about
it with bold strokes and incisive accenting.
The next two scenes, "Friendly landscape"
and "Shelter" are optimistic creations played delightfully
by Pires whose bubbly nature in "Friendly landscape"
immediately grabs the listener. Her "Shelter" could
be more delicate and youthful, but its good nature does shine
"Bird as prophet" is considered the
gem of the set. In ABA form, the first section is a perpetual
mystery as the prophet only offers confusing and highly spontaneous
messages. However, the prophet settles down in the second section
and provides a full cup of security and confidence concerning
the future. Pires is exceptional with this piece, as her prophet
is deliciously playful and coy in the first section and brimming
with assurance in the second section. My sole quibble is that
she is a little too loud in her confident display. Waldszenen
ends with "Farewell", and the Pires interpretation is
absolutely sublime and uplifting although she surprisingly hurries
her way through the introduction and loses the sense of anticipation.
Although I cited Bunte Blätter as being
written in 1850, that isnít quite accurate. Schumann collected
fourteen pieces of music that he had rejected during the peak
of creativity at least ten years earlier. Some of the pieces were
rearranged, and the result was bundled together as Bunte Blätter.
Is there any point in listening to music that Schumann himself
rejected? Yes. Bunte Blätter may not scale the heights, but
the music remains inspirational and fully worthy of many recordings.
Pires offers us nine of the fourteen pieces,
and I do wish that she had recorded the entire work; the poorly
filled disc could easily have accommodated the remaining five
pieces. However, nine selections are better than none and Pires
does not disappoint in her interpretations. Actually, I find these
performances to be the best on the disc.
Earlier in the review I waxed enthusiastically
about Schumann works that incorporate the Florestan-Eusebius alter
egos, and the Bunte Blätter pieces are representative of
Schumannís imaginary world. The music pulsates with impetuous
thoughts, sudden mood swings, and currents of tension always at
the ready and often spilling over. Pires captures these moods
and currents perfectly, highlighting the unbalanced personalities
more effectively than in any other version I have heard. Iím not
about to set aside the wonderful Richter recordings on Olympia
and BBC Legends, but Pires definitely earns equal billing.
In summary, I strongly recommend the Pires disc
to all those who appreciate superb pianism and a complete immersion
in Schumannís most extreme psychology. The Bunte Blätter
readings are essential listening, and Pires has much to offer
in the other two works. The recorded sound is appropriately rich,
but crispness is a rare commodity.