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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Carnaval, op. 9, Kinderszenen, op. 15, Sonata no. 2 in g, op. 22
Ruth Slenczynska (piano)
Recorded at Fernleaf Abbey, Columbus, Ohio, October 5th-7th 1999
IVORY CLASSICS 64405-71004 [66í07"]


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Not so long ago I was commenting on the work of Joyce Hatto, a British pianist who has been travelling the world over the last few decades without the larger public being very much aware of it. Thanks to the noble work of Concert Artists the gramophone has caught up with her in her mature years and my impression was that the larger public has been missing out on a major artist.

Now, from the opposite side of the Atlantic, we have an American-born pianist of Polish descent whose curriculum is truly mind-boggling. Born in 1925 (you can read all this in much greater detail in the booklet) she was quickly acclaimed a child prodigy, giving her first public recital at the age of four. Her fatherís ambition for her knew no bounds and she was subjected to rigorous discipline, later recorded by her in her book "Forbidden Childhood", which in todayís world would probably have procured him a prison sentence. She practised nine hours a day, beginning at 6 in the morning while still in her nightgown; mistakes were punished by a slap on the cheek and more serious misdemeanours resulted in a lost meal. Indeed, her meals were to be seen, not as a right but as a reward for eventual good musical behaviour.

Studies proceeded at the Curtis Institute with Josef Hofmann and in Europe with Egon Petri, Artur Schnabel, Alfred Cortot and Sergei Rachmaninov. Her Berlin debut came at the age of six, followed two years later by her debut in New York; before long she had received floral tributes from the Queens of Belgium and Romania and the King of Denmark and was earning more money than the President of the United States. At the age of fifteen she had had enough and withdrew from the concert platform. She took a degree in psychology at Berkeley and eloped in 1944 to contract a marriage which ended in 1951. Her second marriage was successful.

In 1951 she returned to concert-giving and was quickly signed up for a tour with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra. For three months she performed every night, with two performances on Saturdays and Sundays. Subsequently she appeared throughout the United States and in many other countries and was described by Dimitri Mitropoulos as "a great pianist and musician". She intended to retire from concert-giving at the age of seventy but the demand for her was too great and she continues to give recitals and master classes, as well as to teach at Southern Illinois University. And to think we never knew!

This strange story also illustrates the power of the gramophone in todayís world, for the oddest thing is that this extraordinary career has been virtually ignored by the recording industry, with the result that in Europe, at least, she remains unknown. A small number of recordings were issued on the Music Library label in 1951-2 and have been transferred to CD by Ivory Classics ("The Legacy of a Genius", 64405-70802). Reference is made to some Decca recordings of about ten years later, which I have been unable to trace. A website dedicated to her by the Southern Illinois University lists an extensive holding of recordings, but the labels are not given and I suspect that this is the pianistís own archive of off-the-air and privately-made tapes. Still, nice to know it exists. Now Ivory Classics have leapt to the rescue with the above-mentioned transfer, an album of live performances ("Ruth Slenczynska in Concert", 64405-70902) and the present collection of Schumann, set down very recently in the rich sound that characterizes their work.

Is she worth the fuss? Yes and no. This is warm-hearted, musical Schumann-playing which adopts a middle way where modern performers tend to drive the contrasts to extremes. "Carnaval", for all its fame, is a frightfully difficult piece to bring off since it tempts the performer into all kinds of exaggeration in the name of "characterisation". Yet playing it straight will not work either, and what two listeners will agree totally where characterisation ends and exaggeration begins? By and large Slenczynska is both lively and affectionate and builds up to a stirring conclusion. A tendency to split chords may irritate some (it irritated me at times) and if you have strong feelings about this, you have been warned.

I thought "Kinderszenen" began rather lugubriously and the "Curious story" sounded a rather ordinary one, but "Catch me if you can" romps away delightfully and the "Pleading child" is very tenderly done. From that point on the playing is lively and wistful as required and I much enjoyed it. A particular highlight was "Frightening", faster than usual and scuttering and stuttering in a very childish way. For all Slenczynskaís warmth, I have to say that only Horowitz, to my knowledge, has succeeded in the almost super-human task of presenting "Träumerei" in a single melodic arch, but Slenczynska is as good as most others.

In the 1960s Richter dumbfounded the world with his headlong approach to the outer movements of the G minor sonata. But his tempi were in accordance with Schumannís metronome markings and more recent performers have tended to follow his example, not necessarily a brilliant idea if you donít have his technical mastery. As befits an interpreter whose roots go back further, Slenczynska is a little broader but with plenty of vitality on her own terms; her handling of the slower second subjects has much natural warmth without letting the momentum sag. Indeed, her ability to build up sonata-form structures confidently leads me to hope that some Beethoven might be forthcoming from her. There is no wallowing in the second movement, as befits the "Andantino" marking. There is even a case for feeling that it is kept too much on the move, for Schumann added in brackets "Getragen" (sustained) and the two directions hardly seem compatible. On the grounds that Schumannís German was certainly better than his Italian, it might seem safer to trust the German marking. The Scherzo is a very fiery affair.

All in all this is a warmly played Schumann disc which can be recommended to those for whom the programme appeals, and especially those who see in Schumann the sublimation of "hausmusik" rather than the expression of painful neuroses. Reading through the lines, you will perhaps have gathered that I am not entirely convinced that a long-neglected genius has been re-discovered, but I hope to hear more from her nonetheless.

Christopher Howell


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