Schumann ENG International Record Review


International Record Review: CD Robert Schumann (1838-1839)


Conceptually speaking, 'Robert Schumann: 1838-1839' is surely one of the more interesting recordings to have come out of this Schumann year. Included are fruits of that turbulently eventful period following Schumann's secret engagement to Clara, encompassing the ultimately disappointing sojourn to Vienna, the death of Schumann's brother Eduard, and the initiation of protracted litigation against Friedrich Wieck for Clara's hand in marriage. As they were forced to see relatively little of each other during this time, letters between the celebrated lovers assume a passionate urgency. The same may be said of the piano music Robert addressed to Clara. As he wrote her, 'only music can express what I feel inside of me'.

Piet Kuijken is an immensely gifted pianist, formerly a student of Jan Vermeulen and Menahem Pressler, among others, who now teaches at the Brussels Conservatory as well as in Antwerp and Ghent. Kuijken's traversal of these crucial years is not comprehensive, of course; missing are Kreisleriana, the Fantasie and Faschingsschwank aus Wien. Yet this programme, juxtaposing the ubiquitous Kinderszenen and Arabeske with less frequently encountered works like Blumenstuck, Nachtstucke and the prickly Humoreske, yields rich rewards. Kuijken hails from a distinguished musical clan that has made significant contributions to the historic-instrument movement (he is the son of Wieland and nephew of Sigiswald and Barthold). Not surprisingly, Kuijken's choice of instrument - in this case, a superbe 1850 piano by Johann Baptist Streicher - adds an aura of revelatory insight to his thoughtful, probative interpretations.

I honestly can't say when I've enjoyed the eight Novelletten as a set quite so much. One key to their success is that each piece is imbued with a vividly distinctive character, as though relating a self-contained tale, which nevertheless seems integral to the larger narrative sweep. The first and most famous of the set, in D minor, is remarkable in the naturalness of its transition from its robust main material to the melting lyricism of its trio. The exhilarating flight of the Second Novellette is countered by the dreamy languor of its 'lntermezzo'. In the fourth and fifth pieces, the waltz and the polonaise are vividly evoked, while the eighth is again distinguished by seamless transitions, here between the swirling figurations of the main material and the skipping rhythms of the two trios.

Few Schumann works have been so well served by generations of interpreters as the Kinderszenen, but whether your favourite recording is by Martha Argerich or Alfred Cortot, Maryla Jonas or Artur Schnabel, I think you'll agree that Kuijken is a contender. His supreme mastery of every sonorous resource of this beautiful Streicher piano combines with his keen ear for Schumann's polyphony to create a reading as insightful as it is fresh. If Kinderszenen is a model of poetic intimacv, in the mercurial Humoreske stellar virtuosity is front and centre. Kuijken sacrifices none of the piece's quirkiness. Yet the manic helter-skelter of Humoreske's vividly contrasting moods seems immediately comprehensible and its kaleidoscopic textures emerge with limpid clarity.

The arabeske moves along at a good clip - no fawning sentimentality here - but Kuijken's pliant tempo leaves plenty of room for exquisite phrase shaping. The most ruminative moments are reserved appropriately for the coda, which seems enveloped in a hushed, near mystical aura. For all the natural lyricism of the Blumenstuck, for me it one of those Schumann works where unvaried accompanying figurations court tedium. Kuijken deftly avoids this sensation by conjuring luminous textures that bring out the voice-leading often lost on the modern piano.

Listening to these two and-a-half hours of gorgeous Schumann playing is to be transported to 'those realms', as Liszt characterized it, 'inhabited by no other musician' . While Kuijken's performances cannot be called understated - they are far too full-voiced and red-blooded for that - nevertheless they are free of any trace of affectation. Ultimately this is impeccable music-making that, one feels, takes its starting-point from the very heart of Schumann - nothing more and certainly nothing less. Not to be missed.


Comparisons: Kinderszenen: Argerich (EMI Classics) 5 18333-2 (2007, rev. Apr 2008) Cortot (APR) APR5571 (1947) Jonas (Pearl) GEMlV0077 (1948) Schnabel (APR) APR5526 (1 947)


Patrick Rucker

International Record Review