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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Carnaval, Op. 9
Papillons, Op. 2
Kinderszenen, Op. 15
Arabeske, Op. 18
Nelson Freire, piano
Recorded at Auditorio Massimo, Lugano, December 2002
DECCA 4739022 [59:57]


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In 2002, Nelson Freire came out of his lengthy hibernation from the world of recordings with an exceptional disc of Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 3 and the Opus 25 Etudes. Now, Decca has released a Freire disc of four famous Schumann piano works, and the program is a varied one. We get the masked ball of the Carnaval, a mini-Carnaval in the form of Papillons, the Kreisleriana that revolves around the adult’s perception of childhood events and dreams, and the Arabeske which is a relatively abstract work Schumann wrote to appeal to his audiences.

Since I know Kinderszenen like the back of my hand, I decided to test the Freire waters first with this work. As many of you know, Kinderszenen involves Schumann looking back at his childhood. The adult and child are merged, and any superb performance has to highlight the duality of the music’s messages. This duality immediately takes shape in the 1st Scene, "Foreign lands and people", where the adult takes a long look back at the child dreaming of foreign worlds through the adult filter. Freire also immediately establishes his credentials of investing each note with wide-eyed wonder and nostalgia.

Rhythmic vitality and bounce are the key ingredients to the 2nd Scene titled "Curious Story". Freire’s vitality is as good as it gets. Antonin Kubalek on Dorian is more magisterial and others are more sharply etched, but nobody surpasses Freire concerning the exuberance and flow of the music. He is also excellent in "Catch Me" – fast, exciting, and youthful. "Pleading Child" receives an equally compelling performance fully reflecting a naive and self-absorbed child who never stops asking for what he wants. At the same time, the adult is patient and loving.

The 5th Scene, "Perfect Happiness" is played by Freire in a highly delicate yet public manner. "Important Event" gets Freire’s regal treatment, and I love how he slows down and gradually softens at the conclusion in the manner of Wilhelm Kempff on Deutsche Grammophon.

Freire’s "Dreaming" again displays his delicate and peaceful side in an enchanting interpretation. His "By the fireside" is light and playful, as if conveying the flicker of fire stretching upward. "Knight of the hobby-horse" requires a whimsical attitude delivered with a strong punch, but here I find Freire a little too forceful.

"Almost too serious" conveys a host of emotional themes including mystery, nostalgia, and security in a pristine setting. This is one of Freire’s best performances on the disc with superb pacing and inflections. "Being frightened" goes very well although the sadness feature could have more pronounced. Freire’s "Slumbering child" excellently imparts the piece’s initial melancholy and the subsequent blissful sleep of the child.

When the twelve Scenes are complete, Schumann finishes up with a Postlude, "The poet speaks". This is such a wonderful conclusion to the work, as the poet takes center stage to make sense of it all, to ponder the connections and disconnects between adult and child. Freire is perhaps at his best in the Postlude with incisive articulation to convey the poet’s insight.

Overall, Freire’s performance of Kinderszenen is exceptional. There are other versions more powerful, ceremonial, and deep. However, Freire brings an irresistible combination of lightness and poignancy to the work with outstanding rhythmic flow and meaningful spacing between notes.

With Carnaval, we enter a very different world of Schumann’s creation. The adult-child connection is gone, replaced by layers of emotions impetuously uncovered and displayed at a masked ball. Given that the shorter Papillons also involves a masked ball, Shumann could be said to have had a little obsession going here. From my perspective, he didn’t feel secure in simply being himself out in the world. He created his imaginary alter-egos in Florestan and Eusebius, two individuals who displayed the traits Schumann either would not or could not assume. His masked balls represent the body of core thoughts and emotions that he wouldn’t dare display in public. It’s as if there was an entire person within him dying to get out but petrified to take the plunge. Fortunately, Schumann was able to address all these issues in his music.

Freire is even better in Carnaval and Papillons than he is in the Kinderszenen. The sudden shifts of personality, tempo and dynamics that are such basic features of Carnaval and Papillons are like second nature to Freire. He relishes the architecture of these two works, and I would be hard pressed to point to any other recorded versions of decided superiority.

Arabeske also receives an outstanding reading. Have you ever heard more haunting and stunning music than in the Arabeske’s concluding theme? I haven’t, and the Freire performance has the most sublime conclusion I’ve yet to encounter.

I imagine that all my laudatory comments would place the new Freire disc in the ‘must have’ category. However, there is the issue of sound quality, and I feel that the engineering lowers the disc’s appeal substantially. The basic problem is an overly rich soundstage lacking definition and clarity. When an ancient Benno Moiseiwitsch recording conveys greater detail and shape than the Freire disc, you know that something is amiss. I have the distinct feeling that I am not hearing everything Freire brings to his performances. All I can say is that Decca has traditionally favored rich sound at the expense of clarity and still has trouble getting it right. That Freire’s performances come across so well is a tribute to his artistry.

In conclusion, I recommend Nelson Freire’s new Schumann recording with the reservations expressed about the soundstage. I also strongly advise interested readers to check out the sound before deciding to acquire the disc, although Freire enthusiasts should love the performances, sound deficiencies or not.

Don Satz

 



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