Schumann: Fantasy, Kreisleriana, Papillons, Fantasiestuecke, Humoreske

Connoisseur CD 4256

  March 2008 


Every once in awhile, a miraculous musical event occurs, a perfect congruence of music and musician. Cynthia Raim's two-disc set of Schumann solo piano music is such an event. Ms Raim's playing is so musical, so seductive, her grasp of Schumann so unerring, that one is drawn inexorably into its radiant sense of authenticity. As it happens, I've never been especially taken with Schumann's music, but this CD has changed all that. It is among the few discs I'd select as traveling companions to that hypothetical desert island, one of the few I would not want to be without. Other of my recordings of Schumann's music, despite obvious merit, lack that special magic, including Richter's hair-raising Symphonic Etudes, Horowitz's maniacal Third Sonata, and Abbey Simon's Fantasy.

In the rather sparse notes to this CD one discovers that Le Monde called Cynthia Raim “a new Clara Haskil” in print. Now, I would usually attribute this superlative to the febrile mind of a mediocre critic. But Ms Raim did win first prize in the Clara Haskil International Piano Competition, so it's perhaps to be expected that a critic on a deadline might leap to that pithy, if somewhat meaningless, conclusion. Le Monde's declaration did, however, serve at least one purpose: I have the highest regard for Clara Haskil's musicianship, so Le Monde got me interested in listening carefully to Mr Raim's performance. And I've been doing just that – interspersed with occasional Beethoven quartets and the odd piano sonata – for months now.

Music on the page is an approximation, capable of multiple interpretations, multiple “meanings” as it were, it is much roomier and more dimensional than spoken language. It follows that more than one of these “meanings” can be aesthetically valid. Which is where musicianship comes in. And one really gets a sense of Ms Raim's deep understanding of Schumann's musical language; her playing speaks with absolute conviction, she both cherishes and honors this music. And it is music of fragile beauty, full of longing and frantic nobility, dramatic and personal but rarely indulgent. No, it does not have to be played this way, but I am so grateful that it is. The feeling has persisted these several months that Ms Raim is revealing the core of Schumann. This recording presents an untrammeled doorway to Schumann's mind and heart, allowing the spontaneous energy of a truly unique – and perhaps undervalued - voice to emerge with the inevitability of genius, his and hers.

I have long attributed to women keyboardists a special sensitivity, a special relationship to music and to the means of producing it. (There has been no one to equal Landowska's Bach.) At the risk of committing a generalization, I suspect this has something to do with a basic orientation to life, to the importance given to feelings, to emotional honesty and openness. All the technique in the world is nothing to me if it lacks heart. And the pianoforte is not, for Ms Raim, an insensate means of achieving an end, but a living partner in the production of beautiful music. Her playing is not just emotionally honest, but emotionally spot on accurate.

Schumann's early solo piano music is not only readily accessible, but nowhere else does he seem quite as sure of his footing and quite as spontaneous and brilliant. These “little” compositions invite being called masterpieces. One of my very favorites is Kreisleriana, which Schumann composed in only four days (!). It seems to me a perfectly executed composition, its eight “Phantasien” span a wide range of emotions. There isn't a superfluous note or a false step throughout the thirty-two minutes and twenty-eight seconds of its execution. Although Schumann dedicated the work to Chopin, it is yet another testament to his love for Clara Wieck. (We have Schumann's letters to Clara as testimony. And seven of the eight pieces incorporate a theme written by Clara.) And our attention is inevitably drawn to Schumann's dualistic view of his own persona, which he named Florestan and Eusebius, representing its wild, passionate, and its dreamy, introspective sides respectively. In our holistic age (which regards Descartes as having gotten it wrong), this anachronism may seem distinctly odd, if not proleptic of the insanity which was to later overtake Schumann. The name Kreisleriana derives from a fictional character created by E.T.A. Hoffman, a musical genius troubled by over sensitivity. Schumann wrote that only German readers would understand the connection. But we cannot perhaps fail to draw a connection, even if we don't read German, between one troubled genius and another. Be that as it may, this music, the panoply of emotion, is rendered effortlessly by Cynthia Raim's unobtrusive, masterful technique.