JANACEK: On the overgrown path (Book I); SCHUMANN: Waldszenen, Op. 82; Kinderszenen, Op. 15 – Marc-Andre Hamelin, piano – Hyperion CDA68030, 74:28 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

It makes for an interesting pairing to hear the 13 pieces that Robert Schumann would eventually consider as his Opus 15—the Scenes from Childhood. At the time that particular period of life may have indeed felt idyllic as he was undergoing rather severe persecution from the love of his life’s father. Friedrich Wieck would eventually fail in his long-lived efforts to keep his daughter from the eight-years-senior composer, but in the end love triumphed and Schumann composed. Though these slight pieces that make the Scenes are anything but virtuosic—save a few—and most virtuosos have little trouble with them, it takes a poet indeed to bring to light the incredible and potent packs of emotional resonance that lie within them. Hamelin is such a poet, and presents these works with finesse and rapt sensitivity.

Only eleven years later Schumann would write his last major piano cycle, Forest Scenes, long one of my favorites, and a subject to which the composer, as a loyal man of the Romantic age, almost by default would have a sincere and intensely affected reaction to the notion of wandering on dark paths and seeing who-knows-what lurking behind a moss-laden tree. Schumann’s music draws us in almost imperceptibly with its hunting-horn-call first movement, and only gradually reveals the depth and even fierceness of some of his woodland visions. Hamelin again captures this perfectly, turning in a reading as fine as any I have heard on disc.

With Janacek we jump ahead 50 years, and while his subject matter is a little different—the title referencing a Moravian wedding song—there are many dangerous cracks beneath the deceptively solid surface and the composer can certainly be granted an inheritance of Schumann’s genius for concentrated expression in an economy of means. Even the sometimes overwhelming virtuosity required of these works remains hidden underneath a layer of expressive nuance that pulls the listen into areas not anticipated, a region unexplored and certainly not expected. But in the end we are glad for the journey, even if we just narrowly escape, and the pianistic skills required to put this music over are right down the Schumann ally; consequently, Hamelin again turns in a riveting performance of strength and nervous energy that reminds us that even quiet, reflective music can contain an undercurrent of subtle enervation, while fiery passages lull us into a sense of reverie.

Henry Wood Hall in London makes for a perfect setting for this music, and Hyperion gets it all just right.

—Steven Ritter