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Scenes From Childhood: Piano Music Of Robert Schumann

Release Date: 04/06/2010 
Label:  Abc Classics   Catalog #: 1637944   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Robert Schumann
Performer:  Stephanie McCallum
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 11 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

ALKAN Recueil de Chants Nos. 1-3, Opp. 38 & 65. Une fusée: Introduction et Impromptu Stephanie McCallum (pn) TOCCATA 0157 (71:14)

BEETHOVEN Seven Bagatelles, Op. 33. Bagatelle in a, “Für Elise.” Read more class="ARIAL12bi">Bagatelle in C. Allegretto in C. Presto in c. Eleven Bagatelles, Op. 119; Six Bagatelles, Op. 126; Bagatelle in B?. Allegretto in b. Allegretto quasi andante in g. Waltz in D. Ecossaise in E?. Fragatelle in A; Fragatelle in c?. Fragatelle in E?. Bagatelle in f Stephanie McCallum (pn) ABC 6889 (70:48)

SCHUMANN Kinderscenen. Fantasie, Op. 17; Papillons; Novellette in D Stephanie McCallum (pn) ABC 3852 (70:48)

From the standard repertoire to its (not-quite-so-anymore) outer fringes: Meet Stephanie McCallum. Like a true musician she is interested in just about everything that her instrument offers, from the classical to the contemporary. Born in Australia, she eventually made her way to England to study with the foremost Alkan scholar and pianist of his day Ronald Smith. In 1982 she made her Wigmore Hall debut (giving the world premiere performance of Alkan’s complete Chants , op. 70) and the rest is history: She now tours the world, performing everywhere from Australia to all over Europe; she’s made a number of recordings of solo piano music, worked with numerous ensembles (the Alpha Centauri Ensemble, AustraLYSIS, and the Sydney Alpha Ensemble—of which the last two she co-founded); she has also given the world premiere performance of a concerto written especially for her (Kats-Chernin’s Displaced Dances ). Though the three discs reviewed here are all centered on 19th-century literature, it is fascinating to hear all of the compositions performed one after the other. How unique each composer manages to be at a time when such a quality was so very prized!

I initially became acquainted with Stephanie McCallum when I purchased her recording of Alkan’s op. 35 Etudes quite a few years back. I thought it a stunning disc upon first hearing; it has not lost its appeal all these years later. There is a grittiness to her playing which is highly appropriate for so many of this composer’s works, though there are moments when I miss a slightly more feather-light, articulate sound. The current collection, featuring the first installment of Alkan’s complete Recueils de Chants , Books 1-3 (of 5 total), is superb.

McCallum characterizes each of these little gems perfectly—no easy task when one considers the amount and types of abrupt changes that occur not only between pieces but within them. The recital ends with the encore-like Une fusée, op. 55. Its monumental challenges, easily handled by McCallum, make for a grand conclusion. I eagerly await the second volume in this series.

The pianist’s grittiness is equally welcome in the smaller works of Beethoven. The first set of Beethoven Bagatelles that I came across years ago were those played by Glenn Gould (the opp. 33 and 126 only). These performances are markedly different from his: Whereas Gould looks to the ethereal in the op. 126 set, for example, McCallum tends for the earthly. Those moments of respite are not quite as timeless in her hands, rather they give the listener (and the player!) a chance to relax for a moment and reflect on the more turbulent instances. The rhythmically quirky B-Minor Bagatelle, op. 126/4, makes for a fine point of comparison: The faster section in Gould’s hands sounds like a polished and jazzy improvisation; in McCallum’s that same piece sounds tormented, almost violent. The slower section is equally jarring: For Gould it is a calm moment of inner reflection, for McCallum a point of nervous tension, one that awaits the return of the opening material. The disc’s claim to fame, however, are the numerous “fragatelles”—those works that were never published by Beethoven as actual compositions, but which were compiled and arranged from sketches in the Kullak sketchbook (the last book in which Beethoven worked before his death). Those three pieces along with the last F-Minor Bagatelle , the D-Major Waltz and the E?-Major Ecossaise come from the Kullak. While each of these little works is interesting in some minor way, I do take issue with calling the last Bagatelle featured on this recording Beethoven’s “final composition.” As “complete” as it may seem to Peter McCallum—the pianist’s husband and arranger of these last works—I also agree with him when he states that, “the piece is of the kind that Beethoven might later have returned to and turned into a more extended Bagatelle.” Certainly he may have. But he didn’t. As much as I would have liked for Beethoven to have written a few more pieces before his death, these last works are no more than mere intriguing curiosities.

The Schumann disc features all well-known compositions. I find the pianist especially successful in the Fantasie , op. 17. From the virtuosic opening with its cascade of notes she shows herself to be in full command of the work. The beginning of the second movement sounds grand, even regal in McCallum’s hands. Perhaps most impressive is the way in which she expertly balances the various lines of music with ease. There is equally no sign of struggle with the horrendously difficult leaps in the closing pages of this movement. The finale is played with great attention to detail. Every effect is carefully worked out, yet never does it feel anything but spontaneous. Most importantly, she plays with great sincerity. The other collections are a bit too fussy: There is a nervous energy, which pervades many of the Kinderscenen. What I miss here is the utter simplicity of these gems as seen by a Horszowski or even a Horowitz. The Novellette , acting as a small encore here, brings the entire recital to a joyous conclusion. In McCallum’s hands it is as charming as the best of his works: virtuosic and quirky on one hand, lyrical and dreamy on the other.

Throughout these recitals McCallum proves herself to be not just a technically secure guide, but also a musically thoughtful one as well. She has an extraordinary ability to characterize the music—each composer is approached differently and every piece inhabits its own particular sonic world. The sound on all of these recordings is a bit reverberant for my taste; I prefer a bit less resonance, a bit more clarity, but for the big moments in this music the chosen ambiance works. If one knows this pianist, then one will already be interested in these releases; if one doesn’t, then one owes oneself the pleasure of getting better acquainted with her.

FANFARE: Scott Noriega
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Works on This Recording

Kinderszenen, Op. 15 by Robert Schumann
Performer:  Stephanie McCallum (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1838; Germany 
Date of Recording: 09/27/2006 
Venue:  Eugene Goossens Hall, Australian Broadca 
Length: 13 Minutes 46 Secs. 
Phantasie for Piano in C major, Op. 17 by Robert Schumann
Performer:  Stephanie McCallum (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1836-1838; Germany 
Date of Recording: 05/20/2009 
Venue:  Eugene Goossens Hall, Australian Broadca 
Length: 30 Minutes 21 Secs. 
Papillons, Op. 2 by Robert Schumann
Performer:  Stephanie McCallum (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1829-1831; Germany 
Date of Recording: 09/27/2006 
Venue:  Eugene Goossens Hall, Australian Broadca 
Length: 15 Minutes 18 Secs. 
Novelletten (8) for Piano, Op. 21: no 2 in D major by Robert Schumann
Performer:  Stephanie McCallum (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1838; Germany 
Date of Recording: 09/27/2006 
Venue:  Eugene Goossens Hall, Australian Broadca 
Length: 6 Minutes 30 Secs. 

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