There is always danger of confusion because Clara Schumann’s A-minor Piano Concerto is in the same key as the better-known example by Robert Schumann. The story behind Clara’s composition is interesting, since at the age of fourteen Fräulein Wieck composed a Konzertsatz, which was to become the Concerto’s Finale; her father’s student (and husband-to-be) Robert assisted her with the orchestration. She later composed the first two movements and at the age of sixteen gave the first performance – Felix Mendelssohn conducted.
Earlier this year Howard Shelley’s excellent recording brought renewed attention to Clara’s Concerto and it is interesting that while both his performance and that of Isata Kanneh-Mason take similar lengths of time and both pianists are fully in sympathy with the romantic nature of the piece, their readings differ considerably in nature. Where the opening passage as performed by Shelley has piano flowing along with the orchestral themes, Kanneh-Mason is forceful in her very first entrance and when the piano is given a secondary idea, which Shelley treats in a graciously romantic manner, Kanneh-Mason is more assertive and moulds the music so meaningfully that Chopin comes to mind.
This is positive pianism and the wide spread that the recording gives to the instrument helps it to impose further. Moving thoughtfully into the Andante, considerable expressivity is evident. Halfway through the movement a cello, played by Jonathan Aasgaard, joins the piano. There is an unusual hollow resonance about the cello’s tone (the Stroh-viol comes to mind) yet this unusual quality is suitable as the melody continues as a duo-sonata before a timpani crescendo leads into the Finale. Here a Polonaise-like rhythm inevitably brings Chopin to mind, but this really does represent Clara’s own style and despite the known co-operation of Robert neither here nor in the other movements is there any strong hint of his technique.
The spacious sound ensures that the RLPO gives rich support to Kanneh-Mason’s forceful reading, a combination of romanticism and power. Her treatment of the coda borders on fierceness – appropriate in the context of the interpretation.
Clara composed the Three Romances when in Paris the year before her marriage to Robert; quiet, elegant pieces, suitable for the salon. The Scherzo is a surprisingly serious representation of the genre, modestly paying respect to Classical form. A strong, urgent section is contrasted with a long calm passage before returning to the opening where, in this account, a relaxation of tension serves to foreshadow the close.
The Three Romances could be thought of as a sort of Violin-and-Piano Sonata (although purists would be shocked to hear the movement sequence of D-flat, G-minor and B-flat). They were composed for and often performed by the great violinist Joseph Joachim. They are very much piano-based and in the swifter final item there is adventurous keyboard elaboration of the melodious violin theme played gracefully by Elena Urioste. The transcriptions of two of Robert’s songs have a gentle beauty. Liszt made a well-known version of Widmung but the quietness of Clara’s vision of the music is nearer to the gentle yearning of the original. Both charming arrangements are performed with great affection.
The Piano Sonata is a substantial work and amazingly it remained unpublished for a century-and-a-half. Perhaps the use of incisive, insistent chords, especially in the first movement, recalls Robert but in the gentle yet colourful expansion of the subsidiary themes Clara’s compositional style is very clear and the brief Adagio could equally well be called a Romance. The Scherzo is in Classical form; the section representing a Trio gives a moment of thoughtful contemplation before the return to the bright opening, and the Finale is in more or less conventional yet it has the nature of a fantasia given Kanneh-Mason realises every expressive moment with sensitivity.
Her immense sympathy for this unreasonably neglected composer shines through and a comment of hers is an ideal summing up of the gradual recognition of Clara Schumann: “She is not lost but I think she needed to be rediscovered.”