Schumann: Piano Sonata No.3, Symphonic Studies, Novelets Nos. 1 & 2

Andrea Kauten (piano) (Sony Classical 8869736059 2)

23 October 2009 2.5 stars

KautenThis is the second disc of Schumann to be recorded by the Swiss/Hungarian pianist Andrea Kauten, but I missed the first one (which included Kreisleriana) and am hearing her in this slightly lesser-known Schumann for the first time. I have to say at the outset that I do not really like her style of playing. The blurb in the booklet tells us that after tuition in Switzerland, she went on to train at the Franz Liszt Music Academy in Budapest, where pianists such as Andras Schiff, Jeno Jando and Dezso Ranki trained, and 'this influence can be heard in her wonderful round tone and her highly romantic manner of playing.' Well, I was at many of the piano recitals given by the above in Budapest in the 1970s, and those given by Zoltan Kocsis, and I find very little in common with their styles – all very different from each other – and what I hear on this CD. Kauten plays remorselessly, is technically perfectly sound, but her music making lacks light and shade and I find it all a bit overbearing. It is not a disc I shall return to for insights into that master of the keyboard, Robert Schumann.

The Symphonic Studies, opus 13 are a challenge to any player. As so often with Schumann, Florestan and Eusebius have to be made to say quite different things: there must be light and shade in abundance, graceful delicacy and moments of huge piano sonority. What I get from Kauten's playing is a fully-struck rendering of all the notes, technically impressive but lacking the syntax that tells the story. No 3 is (or should be) marcato il canto, but I hear a four square interpretation with a heavy left hand. No 6 is marked scherzando but the playing is lumpy and too full-blooded (for my taste). Study no 12 should be con espressione but I do not hear any trace of true expression – there is in this rendering no sense of the dreamlike quality that this two minute miniature requires. And the last study, variation 13, lacks fluency: heavy use of the pedal blurs the limpid pools of melody that the piece contains.

The CD starts more promisingly: in the opening movement of the Third piano sonata, Kauten shows what she can do. She attacks the piece, plays with fierce passion and for a few moments I thought I was going to like her style. But by the fourth movement I had decided that she had actually achieved that unusual feat of making Schumann sound unsympathetic. I heard all the notes, but not the musical line.

As a recital, this is therefore to me a big disappointment. The CD is well produced, with an informative accompanying booklet, and the quality of the recorded piano sound is first class. But as I reflected, having listened to the whole CD twice through, the lack of true cantabile playing is a fatal flaw in would-be exponents of Schumann. His wild and romantic outbursts have to be set in a context of restraint and delicacy where indicated. This CD to me, for the most part, was a hard slog through Schumann's notes, and gave me very little interpretative insight. So I can admire Kauten's technique, and her tenacity in getting through two demanding pieces, but I cannot really recommend the CD.

By Mike Reynolds