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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Piano Music

Disc 1:
Papillons, Op. 2 (1832)
Davidsbündlertänze, Op. 6 (1837)
Waldszenen, Op. 82 (1848)
Disc 2:
Widmung, arr. Liszt (1848)
Frühlingsnacht, arr. Liszt (1872)
Fantasiestücke, Op. 12 (1837)
Arabeske, Op. 18 (1838)
Kreisleriana, Op. 16 (1838)
Leon McCawley, piano
Recorded at St. George’s Bristol, England, September 2003
AVIE AV0029 [2CDs: 142:08]



Comparisons:
Papillons/Arabeske – Freire/Decca
Davidsbündlertänze – Backhaus/Enterprise, Schein/Ivory Classics
Fantasiestücke – Rubinstein ‘1949’/RCA, Argerich/EMI
Waldszenen – Arrau/Philips, Richter/DG
Kreisleriana – Gieseking/Classica D’Oro, Schliessmann/Bayer

Contrast has been a cornerstone of music for centuries and likely reached its apex during the 19th century romantic era. Robert Schumann even created two opposite alter-egos to use as the foundation for his contrasting themes in many of the works he composed in the 1830s. At one extreme is the dreamer Eusebius who constantly ponders the meaning of life. At the other end is the man of action Florestan.

Schumann’s creation of these two figures reflects the behaviors that he was not able to exhibit himself. Yet, each figure is a fractured personality. Eusebius has no ability to take action, and Florestan never considers anything but the immediate mission at hand. Naturally, if the two figures merged, we would have a complete person capable of functioning in the world. However, Schumann rarely has them merging, preferring that their interactions create conflict and tension. When looking at the piano music Schumann wrote in the 1830s, the Florestan/Eusebius themes usually take center stage except in works such as Kinderszenen where the contrast is between child and adult.

The majority of the music on the new Avie 2-cd set of Schumann’s solo piano music comes from the late 1830’s when Schumann was in mental anguish at not being able to spend time with his beloved Clara Wieck due to her father’s protective stand and dislike of Schumann. This anguish and the Florestan-Eusebius contrasts led to Schumann’s most inspired and compelling musical thoughts.

When listening to versions of works such as the Davidsbündlertänze, Kreisleriana, Fantasiestücke and Papillons, pianists are judged on how well they convey Florestan and Eusebius. Also very important, is conveying the mix of the two figures that often jointly occupy the same movement of a work and even the same section/theme.

Looking at the young and savvy Leon McCawley’s performances in the above light generally yields advantageous results. McCawley is most effective in the Florestan music; he gives the warrior a strong and fierce presence with plenty of excitement thrown in. McCawley isn’t quite in Walter Giesking’s league in giving us a fierce and wildly intense Florestan, but he beats out most of the competition.

McCawley is also idiomatic in the Eusebius music, although I do have a few reservations. He tends to use quick tempos that sometimes have the effect of reducing the poignancy of Schumann’s refrains. Also, underinflection and short note values tend to exacerbate the reduced emotional depth. The playing is still gorgeous, but other pianists including Ann Schein and Arthur Rubinstein clearly dig deeper into the nostalgic and cerebral elements of the Eusebius personality.

The interaction of Florestan and Eusebius is McCawley’s weakest area. The contrasts Schumann creates between the two figures are often displayed through Eusebius taking the upper voices and Florestan the lower and middle ones. Unfortunately, McCawley tends to carry a rather lame bass line with little growl or churning. A perfect example is the last movement of Davidsbundlertanze where the primary theme offers wonderful opportunity for the bass strokes to have a hammer-like effect that McCawley entirely avoids.

There is an aspect of McCawley’s performances that lifts them above the average. I don’t recall other versions of these works that provide such clean lines and textures. In this regard, McCawley reminds me of the noted pianist/conductor Olli Mustonen except that Mustonen is much sharper and unique; McCawley is firmly planted in the mainstream of interpretation.

The recorded sound is fine although there is a little too much air and high notes can sound glassy. The main consideration is that the sound characteristics do not interfere with McCawley’s immaculate lines.

In conclusion, the new Leon McCawley set of Schumann piano works has much to offer. The performances bespeak an insightful awareness of Schumann’s alter-egos, and I feel that most listeners would be very pleased with the set. However, we already have a wealth of transcendent performances on record, and McCawley never reaches this hallowed position. I give the Avie set a mild recommendation except for those who want their Schumann textures ‘clean as a whistle’. Also, those who are smitten with Olli Mustonen might well find McCawley an attractive partner.

Don Satz

 



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