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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood), Op. 15 (1838)

  1. Von fremden Ländern und Menschen (Foreign lands and people)
  2. Kuriose Geschichte (Curious story)
  3. Hasche-Mann (Catch me)
  4. Bittendes Kind (Pleading child)
  5. Glückes genug (Happiness)
  6. Wichtige Begebenheit (Important event)
  7. Träumerei (Dreaming)
  8. Am Kamin (By the fireside)
  9. Ritter vom Steckenpferd (Knight of the hobby-horse)
  10. Fast zu Ernst (Almost too serious)
  11. Fürchtenmachen (Being frightened)
  12. Kind im Einschlummern (Slumbering child)
  13. Der Dichter spricht (Postlude Ė The poet speaks)

  14. Waldszenen (Forest Scenes), Op. 82 (1848)
  15. Eintritt (Entrance)
  16. Jäger auf der Lauer (Hunter in ambush)
  17. Einsame Blumen (Lonely flowers)
  18. Verrufene Stelle (Place of evil)
  19. Freundliche Landschaft (Friendly landscape)
  20. Herberge (Shelter)
  21. Vogel als Prophet (Bird as prophet)
  22. Jagdlied (Hunting song)
  23. Abschied (Farewell)

  24. Bunte Blätter (Colored Leaves), Op. 99 (1850 Ė excerpts)
  25. Nicht schnell
  26. Sehr rasch
  27. Frisch
  28. Ziemlich langsam
  29. Schnell
  30. Ziemlich langsam, sehr gesangvoll
  31. Langsam
  32. Sehr langsam
  33. Präludium
Maria-João Pires, piano
Recorded at Chartreuse de Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, August 1984
WARNER APEX 2564 60363 [51:48]

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 of Waldszenen.

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 scary passages.

"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 through.

"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.

Don Satz


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