Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Variations on a theme by Robert Schumann in F# minor Op.9 (1854) [17:57]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood) Op.15 (1839) [17:33]
Variations and Fugue on a theme by Handel Op.24 (1861) [29:03]
Sheila Arnold (piano)
rec. October 2008 (Handel) – May 2010, Stadthalle Meinerzhagen, Germany. DDD
AVI-MUSIC CAVI-8553215 [64:32]
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 There are Brahms-parts, withdrawn and insecure.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 magic.
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!
Pages of intimate diaries. I just can’t stop listening to this disc.