SCHUMANN: Kinderszenen, Op. 15; BRAHMS: Paganini Variations, Op. 35 – Claudio Arrau, piano – PentaTone multichannel RQR (4.0) SACD PTC 5186 170, 45:50 **** [Distr. by Naxos]:
Recorded in four-channel at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam in March 1974, these two staples of the Romantic repertoire capture the variegated art of Chilean keyboard master Claudio Arrau (1903-1991). The 1838 suite of thirteen miniatures that comprise Scenes from Childhood might seem too ingenuous for the likes of Arrau, always the hyper-intellectual pianist in the German tradition. But aside from intensely “earnest” rendering, Arrau keeps a light hand on the proceedings, imbuing the sparkling passages a hasty magic of heir own, as in Ritter vom Steckenpferd or the middle section of Fuerchtenmaedchen. The purely poetic impulses Arrau projects with a grace that shies away from undue gravity. Encoded in the falling figures are fairy-tale marches that belong to Jean-Paul Richter and his “Years of Indiscretion.” The pearly play that always marks an Arrau interpretation moves into the dramatic realm as “The Poet Speaks,” reminding us that childhood must be maintained in spirit, and not merely lamented as a Paradise Lost.
Few pieces could provide a greater contrast in spirit to Schumann’s musings than the 1863 Brahms Variations on a Theme of Paganini, keyboard diablerie to match the Devil’s own violin wizard in the form of 28 variants and finale on the A Minor Caprice. Arrau negotiates the technical demands of this grueling set of etudes with a speed he would shed in his final phase of recording. Double octaves, huge spans, chromatic leaps, bold runs, and transpositions of register mean nothing to Arrau’s inexorable sense of pulse. Many of the harmonic shifts parallel Liszt of the B Minor Sonata, a work Brahms apocryphally rejected as against his own taste. The latter variations from Book I, all diaphanous bells, apply intricate rhythms that carillon in exquisite harmony. The last variation propels us into a furious, blazing avalanche of percussive sound, fiendishly present in the 4.0 PentaTone remastering.
Book II merely extends the punishing bravura that ends Book I. Both Hungarian and Viennese flavors infiltrate several of the variants, leftovers from the Brahms years with violinist Remenyi and an eternal fascination with gypsy modes. The swift passing syncopations assume an edgy brightness, a palpable sense of self-congratulation. The middle variant achieves a broken-chord siciliano in haunted colors. Even the rainy-day music of the autumnal Brahms, the “old bachelor” pieces of the late 1880s finds an anticipatory measure in Book II. Arrau’s granite-styled final peroration flails at time and mortality like Blake’s Tyger, twisting the sinews of the heart. [The rich hi-res surround reproduction doesn’t suffer a bit at 4.0 vs. today’s 5.0…Ed.]