I plead guilty. I think that I was intentionally delaying the
review of this disc, because I subconsciously wanted to keep
it only for myself – at least for a while. This disc is like
a window into the private life of three people, like pages from
intimate diaries, like a movie about that enigmatic triangle
– Schumann, his wife Clara, and Brahms. We do not get explanations,
but we see their glances and overhear their conversations. But
we are unseen, as if watching them through a magic mirror. And
maybe because of this, the excitement of watching these lives
and loves is mixed with the feeling that we are not actually
allowed there. It’s all so private, so enclosed.
The first scene of this movie shows us young Brahms, a shy romantic
boy, who is looking with sorrow at the tragic waning life of
his adored Schumann. At the same time, his feelings toward Clara
can’t be called anything less than love; I know there is little
historical proof – but it’s a movie, OK? So Brahms takes a theme
by Schumann (his Albumblatt No.1), and creates a present
for Clara, a set of variations describing all three of them.
There are Brahms-parts, withdrawn and insecure. There are Schumann-parts,
moody and turbulent. Var.9 seems to be a page from Kreisleriana
– and, like the parts of Kreisleriana, its marking is
in German. And there are Clara-parts, calm and radiant. They
appear towards the end, like sunlight coming through storm clouds.
If you love the wistful, waltzy Poco allegretto movement
from Brahms’ Third Symphony, you’ll meet some of its
intense tenderness here. This work is less-known than the ensuing
Ballades, Op.10, but its emotional effect is profound.
Brahms, at 21, was already the master of variations. This form
was in decline by that time, and it was he who restored it to
its former glory.
The second scene is a flashback to 15 years earlier. Schumann
sends a present to his beloved Clara, during the difficult period
when her father did not allow their marriage. The music shines
with the innocence of childhood. Do not attribute much importance
to the titles of the individual movements: Schumann built it
as a set, picking and assembling 13 gems out of a collection
of 30 or so pieces, and attached the names later. So it is not
so much a sequence of events from a child’s life - as the titles
could suggest - but rather a stream of thoughts about childhood.
Schumann was separated from Clara at the time, yearned for her,
and wrote to her: “What I in all modesty have invented, maybe
one day will become our reality”. So it became, and they had
a happy marriage and shared the joys of parenthood – alas, this
was cut far too short by Schumann’s mental illness. Unlike some
other music from that period, Kinderszenen do not show the bipolar
shadow. The music is balanced and positive. As in much of Schumann’s
piano music from this period, there is a feeling that it was
actually intended just for one person, and is essentially a
love gift with a big question mark attached: “Do you? Will you?”
They married the following year.
The third and final scene from our movie brings us forward to
the year 1862. Brahms is still young (29) but, apparently, already
going towards his later Frei aber froh (“Free but happy”)
motto. The Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel
was a birthday present to Clara, and she premiered it and did
a lot to establish the work’s popular status. We won’t find
yearning or suffering here: Brahms has decided on the solitary
course of his life, and he is fighting melancholy. Like Beethoven
in the Diabelli Variations, Brahms starts with a rather
inconspicuous theme, “an admirably neutral starting-place”.
But the treatment of the theme is very different from the Diabellis:
for one, the character is not changed - at least, until the
Fugue. This theme has a certain golden color, and this aureate
glow is preserved throughout, as in another great set of variations,
Beethoven’s Eroica. Inside this unified frame, there
is plenty of space for diversity, which makes the listening
continually stimulating. The particular trait of Brahms’ variation
technique is the importance of the bass line. As the composer
himself declared: “On the given bass, I invent something actually
new, I discover new melodies in it, I create.” The set of 25
variations concludes with a magnificent Fugue.
No movie is good while it is still in script. Sheila Arnold
is the director and operates the cameras. She breathes life
into all the roles. Her Schumann Variations are tender
and poetic, with delicate shading, wistful sadness in the gentle
places and demonic agitation in the fast ones. She is not afraid
to be wild and harsh. Moreover, there is no sentimentality,
all is very sincere. The same sincerity carries over into Kinderszenen.
Here Arnold’s playing ranges from light and transparent, almost
like a veil, to playful and insistent. She uses rubato in a
free and natural way. I daresay The poet speaks is too
static, but the preceding Child falling asleep is pure
Finally, Arnold is technically dazzling and emotionally direct
in the Handel Variations. She treats the work more as
a sequence of frames than as one metamorphic entity. I find
this an acceptable view, though the overall effect is probably
diminished. Also, Arnold does not “catch a wave” and ride on
it throughout the entire work: she willingly loses the drive
about 2/3 of the way through, only to make the final sprint
more spectacular. The Steinway piano provides the aptly grand
sound. The acoustic quality is very good. The recording is close
and faithful, although the loudest notes are trimmed and ring
a shade emptily.
I finally made myself write this review, but even after doing
it I just can’t stop listening to this disc. Help!