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Robert Schumann

Kinderszenen, Opus 15

Survey of Recordings, Part 1

Part 1 will cover ten versions of Kinderszenen with another grouping slated for Part 2. The ten versions for your consideration are:

Martha Argerich…Deutsche Grammophon 410653 (1984)
Vladimir Horowitz….CBS/Sony 42409 (1962)
Mieczysław Horszowski…Nonesuch 79202 (1988)
Peter Katin….Olympia 218 (1988)
Wilhelm Kempff….Deutsche Grammophon 435045 (1973)
Antonín Kubalek…Dorian 90116 (1988)
Benno Moiseiwitsch…Testament 1196 (1930)
Ivan Moravec…Supraphon 3508 (1987)
Artur Schnabel….Naxos 8.110665 (1947)
Ruth Slenczynska…Ivory Classics 71004 (1999)

After typing the above credits, it seems like a very impressive line-up of pianists; I do hope I've left some fine performances for Part 2. When the least renowned artist is Peter Katin, you know the discography is at a very high level.

Let's talk a little about Schumann's Kinderszenen. It was composed in matter of a few days in 1838 when Schumann was twenty-eight years old. The work consists of twelve children's scenes followed by a postlude for the set. Each scene is a mood-painting, but they are not from the view of the child; they represent the understanding feelings of an adult observing and remembering the child's world. From this perspective, there would naturally be much nostalgia for those younger days of fun, discovery, and parental security.

Of course, Kinderszenen gives us a panorama of moods passing from child to adult and back. Although many of the scenes are inward-looking and gentle, a few possess great exuberance. Simplicity is very important in performing the work; one could say that it's a difficult work that needs to sound very simple and pure. As a point of interest, Schumann wasn't yet a married man with children. Would the work have been significantly different if Schumann had already gone through the child rearing process? Just a thought to ponder.

1st Scene (Foreign Lands & People) - When I was a child, my parents bought me a large globe of the world; I used to spin it and find my future destinations. I don't think much about that globe and the vistas it opened for me, but Schumann brings it all back. At the same time, these thoughts are not totally positive in that many of the travel dreams I had still remain just dreams. In that respect, there is an element of reflective sadness as well.

Such is the case with the 1st Scene. Although the piece is largely tender and optimistic, there are passages of sadness when the descending lines takes center stage. The timings of the ten versions range from Horszowski's one minute reading to Slenczynska's two minute performance. Naturally, momentum gains priority with greater speed, while reflection is stronger with the slower versions.

These are ten great performances of the 1st Scene. Slenczynska, although quite slow, does not get ponderous or bogged down. Horszowski has me believing that his very quick tempo is entirely appropriate; his momentum is strong, and he doesn't skimp on reflection or sadness.

Although a hard choice, I favor Horowitz and Moiseiwitsch for the 1st scene. Horowitz gives one of the quicker performances; his drive and poignancy are both at peak levels as well as the innocence of childhood. As I've remarked in the past, I can't think of a pianist better than Horowitz at playing soft music; his projection and articulation are fantastic for the volume and he always creates subtle nuances that are irresistable.

Moiseiwitsch's performance is as slow as Slenczynska's, but he leaves out the concluding section's descending passages. That's fine with me, because I feel like I've had a full dinner once he's finished. Overall, Moiseiwitsch's articulation is even better than from Horowitz; this is most evident with the descending lines which Moiseiwitsch accents perfectly with a slowing of tempo which is mesmorizing. His performance is the richest of the ten and also provides the most contrast. What about sound? It's very good for 1930. Although there can be some partial 'fade-outs', I am very impressed with the piano tone and how well it is usually projected. Actually, I prefer this sound to the less vivid tones from the Schnabel version made seventeen years later.

2nd Scene (Curious Story) - These monikers such as Curious Story come directly from Schumann as he wanted to give performers hints as to how to approach each scene. You'll have to fill in your own blank as to the story's theme and plot. Suffice it to say that the music is energetic, bouncy, and contains a strong element of wide-eyed curiosity and wonder.

Repeated listenings of the 2nd Scene keep telling me the same message. Each of the ten versions is equally enjoyable. Also, except for Horszowski and Katin, they are very similar to each other. Horszowski's distinction is an energy flow significantly more nervous than in the other performances; I find it rewarding and not out of sync with the music's charms and exuberance. Katin possesses smoother contours than the other versions; I'm not thrilled with this approach, but his tender passages are so detailed and delicious that his version has to rank with the others. One thing is becoming crystal clear; these ten particular artists don't seem to have any level of quality less than outstanding. I assume this pattern will change since all the artists are human, but it's been quite a trip for me so far.

3rd Scene (Catch me) - Although the title does convey the notion of a playful game among children, this is one scene where I have to veer off the beaten track. I think most folks would agree that the music is fast and energized. Where I might be going off the main road is my opinion that it also has a menacing element of diabolical proportion.

This time around, I do have some complaints about a few versions. Horowitz calls attention to himself with exaggerated note pounding and cute phrasing. Kubalek and Horszowski are rather dainty with the right hand, and Slenczynska is precious. Argerich gives a performance of segments as if she picked up pieces of recording tape and quickly attached them; the reading never is coherent. Katin's performance does have a degree of coherence, but his technical command could use improvement. Mr. Kempff isn't sufficiently animated whether the name of the game is Catch me or The Devil's around the bend. Finally, Slenczynska doesn't inject enough youthful verve into her performance.

Ivan Moravec and Benno Moiseiwitsch give excellent readings with fine driving power, exuberance, and sense of the long line. With these two performances, we start entering a world which has its underside partially exposed. With Artur Schnabel, the underside takes command as Lucifer is gaining ground on his young prey. Schnabel's is the fastest version of the ten and a gang-buster interpretation.

Short Update: Moiseiwitsch holds the top spot closely followed by Horowitz, Schnabel, and Moravec. The remaining versions have been a pleasure to listen to, although none has yet to break through the very strong competitive field.

4th Scene (Pleading child) - Such gorgeous and tender music enveloped in a continuous stream of pleading questions is hard to find. This piece also has a subtle tension which comes primarily from the lower voices. As usual, each of the ten performances is an absolute delight. Three do stand out for me: Moravec, Horszowski, and Kubalek. I feel these three do the best at presenting a constant cycle of pleadings. Also, Moravec's version is the slowest, most contemplative, and most tender. Horszowski's quick performance is the one which best evokes a pleading child; his inflections are perfect. Concerning Kubalek, the tension and projection from his left hand are stunning and contribute to a very rich performance.

5th Scene (Happiness) - Schumann's music beautifully evokes a youthful and complete happiness which leaps into the air with an urgency of it's own. Kempf is too relaxed; the music doesn't leap; there's also no leaping with Slenczynska who is rather heavy and mature. Argerich injects some ill-timed drama, while Horowitz and Moravec overdo a priority on nuances and changes in tempo and dynamics; they complicate instead of illuminate the Scene.

Katin, Horszowski, Schnabel, and Moiseiwitsch give exceptional performances. Youth, joy, and a light exuberance tinged with urgency are excellently delivered. Even better is the Kubalek version which I consider about perfect. Comparing Kubalek with Horowitz/Moravec reveals that Kubalek also elicits nuance from the music with changes in tempo and dynamics but in a much more subtle fashion which is totally appealing and adds to the urgency and lift. Kubalek gives this listener the unbridled and pristine joy that a child can exude.

6th Scene (Important event) - This music always seems more to me like a ceremonial event of majestic proportions. The piece is very confident and swaggering; it can easily evoke the entrance of the royal family at court during a time of celebration. One of the most appealing aspects of the music is how gradually and naturally the event winds its way down to a position of rest.

This winding-down feature is beautifully performed by Wilhelm Kempff; his shading and subtlety are entirely seductive. My only reservation is that his display of ceremony could have been a little more animated. That greater animation with irresistable swagger comes from Schnabel, Horszowski, and Moiseiwitsch. However, none puts the magic into the conclusion like Kempff.

Katin's wind-down conclusion hardly registers with minimal shading and subtlety. Horowitz and Moravec are too forceful unless something like a boxing event is imminent. Slenczynska is more than forceful as she applies the 'sledge-hammer' approach; another poor decision she makes is to end the music with demonstrative phrasing. Argerich and Kubalek are fine but don't match the best versions for swagger.

Update on Ruth Slenczynska: In comparison to the other versions, Ms. Slenczynska exhibits a rather mature personality not well in touch with the child's world. She has some problems with animation and tends toward a heavy approach to the music. I currently have her version as the least rewarding, and her consistency of style leads me to believe that she's likely to remain in that position.

7th Scene (Dreaming) - This is easily the most popular piece from Kinderszenen and is often plucked from the work and presented in recitals. The music's tender and comforting nature rightly weaves a spell of enchantment over many listeners.

Most of the versions are excellent with Moravec's taking pride of place. His performance is the slowest of the ten and the most comforting as well. Its effect is hypnotic, and the subtle shadings so interesting. The only version I'm skeptical of is from Slenczynska. She's certainly slow enough to bring out a wealth of shadings and nuance, but they are few in number. I find her rather perfunctory compared to the others.

8th Scene (By the fireside) - Blending a wide-eyed innocence with the contemplative side of the adult, Schumann gives us a snapshot of adult and child together watching the fire. Kempff is on the slow side and rather sleepy due to some weak articulation; this is not a vital reading. Also, at the slow pace, Kempff's level of nuance is very slight. By comparison, Horowitz uses a similar tempo but with articulation and inflection much more pronounced than Kempff.

All the other versions are excellent. Argerich has the most interesting rhythmic patterns, and Moiseiwitsch presents a driving performance full of tension. My preferred version is from Antonín Kubalek. His performance is the slowest and easily the most contemplative. Yet, he employs outstanding articulation and a wealth of nuance to keep his reading fresh and interesting. Best of all, there's an innocence to his performance which carries equal weight with the adult view. Kubalek gives me the greatest sense of intimacy between child and adult; that's why it goes to the top of my list.

9th Scene (Knight of the hobby-horse) - This music needs to convey a whimsical attitude and do it with a strong 'punch'. Horszowski surprisingly is too relaxed and stodgy, while Slenczynska is again overly mature and dramatic. Katin, Moravec, and Kempff are a step up but not fully satisfying; Katin has a quirky rhythmic pulse, Moravec goes a little overboard with nuances, and Kempff could be more animated. Excellent versions with plenty of punch and whimsy come from Horowitz, Moiseiwitsch, Schnabel, and Argerich.

Anton Kubalek again offers my favorite performance of the ten issues. As with the four great versions I mentioned above, Kubalek has the punch and whimsy under command. His advantage over the others is the amount of detail he projects. Kubalek's articulation is perfect in its strength, and every delicious musical strand gets highlighted.

Last Update: It looks like Moiseiwitsch, Kubalek, and Schnabel will be vying for the top spot. Kubalek wasn't close to the front-runners after the first few scenes, but he keeps getting better like a fine wine. At the other end, Slenczynska holds up the rear; Katin has been significantly more rewarding than Slenczynska but still below the other eight versions.

10th Scene (Almost too serious) - Yes, the music is serious and also delicate, mysterious, and comforting. Horszowski has commented that perhaps the child on the hobby-horse from Scene 9 has fallen and is crying.

I've had a very enjoyable time listening to each of the versions of Scene 10; every one of them captures the music's delicate and comforting elements. There are two versions which do more - Horszowski and Moiseiwitsch. Both inject an irresistable degree of tension and urgency to their readings without disturbing one bit the music's youthful and comforting nature. By doing so, each presents the greatest amount of diversity and contrast.

11th Scene (Being frightened) - Essentially, this scene has a primary theme of sadness/weeping with three strategically placed passages meant to frighten. By my count, four of the versions do have strong fright and menace in their presentations: Slenczynska, Moiseiwitsch, Argerich, and Horowitz. I particularly like how Horowitz gives the sad theme a jittery quality which leads into the fright. Although Slenczynska is quite frightening, she also imbues the sad theme with a similar quality. The result is a lack of contrast which drops her version from the top level.

12th Scene (Slumbering child) - Intense melancholy and reflection set against the blissful sleeping of a child makes this scene appropriate as the last one in the set. Every version is a joy to listen to, including the very quick performances from Moiseiwitsch and Horowitz which replace some of the melancholy with urgency. My favorite has to be the Moravec with leisurely pacing, exquisite melancholy, and the most expressive presentation of the serenity of a sleeping child.

Postlude (The poet speaks) - The reflections of one's childhood have come to a conclusion. It is now time to listen to a sensitive adult ponder the meaning of life and the connections/disconnects between our youth and maturity. Articulation and intervals are so important in this very slow music with spacing that often seems enormous.

When a youngster, I had much trouble playing the Postlude in that I couldn't stick to the wide spacing required. I felt compelled to speed up and always got ticked off knowing that I wasn't showing the patience needed to do the piece justice.

Given my past experience with the Postlude, I wince whenever I hear a version which sounds like the pianist also can't stay with the wide spacing. I'm glad to report that all ten versions have no problem with patience and spacing. Each is effective in giving us a mature and reflective guide. My preferred version comes from Schnabel who invests the music with a greater weight and foundation than the other pianists; his articulation is also exceptional. I'd surely want Schnabel as my guide.

Don's Conclusions: I can confidently give a strong recommendation to eight of the ten performances. Katin is mildly recommended, while Slenczynska's version is problematic. Here's the run-down in order of preference:

Benno Moiseiwitsch - Revered for his wide tonal palette and aristocratic style, Moiseiwitsch uses these qualities to provide an outstanding interpretation. All aspects of his playing are at least excellent. Tempo is a moot point with Moiseiwitsch since the ones he employs always sound just right. His articulation is second to none and largely responsible for the high stature of his readings. He does a beautiful job of blending the views of the adult and child, and the only drawback I can think of is the dated sound. Unless you insist on excellent sound quality, Moiseiwitsch's Kinderszenen is an essential acquisition. This Testament disc also has Chopin's 24 Preludes, four pieces by Rachmaninov, and other music to boot.

Antonín Kubalek - With the best sound quality of the ten versions, Kubalek's version is preferred for those who might find the Moiseiwitsch sound a detriment. Kubalek is equal to and quite similar to Moiseiwitsch in most of the scenes. Like Moiseiwitsch, Kubalek's articulation and spacing are exceptional, and he routinely puts forth a delectable amount of nuance and expression. The other works on the Dorian disc are Carnaval, and the Opus 111 & 133 pieces. My best advice is to snap up Kubalek without delay.

Artur Schnabel - Schnabel isn't aristocratic as much as he is tough and rugged. Schnabel supplies 'grit' to his readings, and I find this quality a welcome and distictive one. At the same time, the music's poetry and nuance does not pass him by at all. Although the sound leaves much to be desired, this is a great version deserving a spot in one's record library. The disc's coupling is the Piano Concerto in B Flat Major by Brahms which is conducted by Adrian Boult.

Ivan Moravec - He's as good as it gets in the more tender pieces such as Pleading child, Dreaming, and Slumbering child where his nuance, contemplation, and comfort are exceptional. The more exuberant music is not at such a high level; Moravec can go overboard with nuance and sometimes is too heavy. Still, his best music-making is magnificent and not to be missed. This Supraphon disc also has Schumann's Piano Concerto in A minor and the Franck Symphonic Variations.

Mieczysław Horszowski - This is a very youthful and rhythmically vital reading which impresses me quite a bit. Aside from a stodgy and overly relaxed Hobby-Horse, every scene is imbued with Horszowski's brand of poetry and energy which often takes on a nervous quality well suited to the particular scene. His Nonesuch disc also contains Schumann's Arabesque, two Mozart piano sonatas, and three pieces by Chopin. It's a fine program exceptionally performed.

Vladimir Horowitz - I end up a little disappointed with the Horowitz version for two reasons. First, I think he peaks with the 1st scene. Second, there are times when I feel I'm listening to the "Horowitz style" instead of Schumann. I really don't want to make too much of this, as the performances are very enjoyable and rate a high recommendation. The disc also has Schumann's Toccata, Blumenstuck, Arabesque, and Kreisleriana; I consider it a highly desireable combination of works.

Martha Argerich - Most piano enthusiasts seem to have a higher opinion of Argerich than I generally possess. The one reservation I tend to have of her recorded performances is the same one I have concerning her reading of Kinderszenen: some lack of weight and foundation. It's not a feature I notice much from listening to only one scene, but listening to her version straight-through sends me the clear message that more weight would be advantageous. However, like Horowitz, there is a great deal to enjoy in her performances of Kinderszenen, and I expect to listen to them regularly. The coupling is Schumann's Kreisleriana; it's not a generous program but very rewarding. If you have no problem with the weight Argerich gives the music she performs, her version could well be among your favorites.

Wilhelm Kempff - Kempff's Kinderszenen is part of a four-cd box set of schumann solo piano works which should be in the collection of every fan of Schumann piano music. However, his performance of Kinderszenen would have benefited from greater animation in a few of the scenes. I personally find that he doesn't 'rev-up' frequently enough in comparison to the best versions.

Peter Katin - It would be surly for me to complain about Katin's performances. He is always tasteful, poetic, and rewarding. I do feel that the best versions dive into the music's emotional core more convincingly than Katin, but I've been enjoying his reading for years now and figure on doing the same in the future. Katin's all-Schumann disc also has Carnaval and the Opus 22 Piano Sonata. This is a fine disc which I'm pleased to own.

Ruth Slenczynska - I can't recommend Slenczynska's reading of Kinderszenen. I've mentioned the exceptional weight provided by artists such as Kubalek and the low weight from Argerich. Slenczynska offers at least twice as much weight as Kubalek, and it sinks some of the performances. I think the problem belongs to both Slenczynska and the sound engineering. Slenczynska's Kinderszenen is simply too mature to capture a fine balance between adult and child. The lower end of the keyboard is given too much prominence by the artist and the engineers; it frankly sounds as if an additional microphone has been dropped into the piano at the lower end. Please don't get me wrong; she certainly is poetic and enjoyable, but there are too many superior versions to bother using up valuable time with these heavy-bound performances. The couplings on her Ivory Classics disc are identical to the Katin offerings.

Part 2 will focus on seven additional recorded versions of Kinderszenen which will be hard-pressed to match the quality of these first ten reviewed.

Copyright © Don Satz