On Fri 22 Feb – Sun 24 Feb 2019, St John’s Smith Square celebrates the 200th anniversary year of Clara Schumann’s birth. Born in Leipzig in 1819, Clara Schumann is remembered nowadays as the wife of Robert Schumann and close friend of Johannes Brahms. This three-day festival hopes to shed some light on the various facets of Clara’s life – her role as an international pianist, a mother, friend, and composer. Although a significant portion of her compositions are for solo piano, Clara did write 29 Lieder, most of which are not featured often enough in recital programmes.
On this note, the Clara Schumann Festival opens with a very rare opportunity to hear Clara’s complete published songs, 29 settings in total. Renowned Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser shares the programme with the rising English tenor Alessandro Fisher (Winner of 2016 Kathleen Ferrier Competion and BBC New Generation Artist), accompanied by Eugene Asti who recorded The Songs of Clara Schumann on the Hyperion label.
Continuing the Festival’s particular focus on Lieder, Saturday 23 Feb 2019 begins with a Lieder Masterclass led by Eugene Asti. St John’s Smith Square are delighted to welcome three emerging singer-pianist duos from Oxford Lieder Young Artists, each of whom will explore a work by Clara Schumann plus another piece associated with her.
In their early years of marriage, Robert and Clara devoted considerable time to the study of fugue and counterpoint, notably Bach’s complete Well-Tempered Clavier which Robert referred to as his “daily bread”. Suitably titled “The Old Masters” (a term used by Clara to refer to the likes of Bach and Handel), Saturday’s afternoon recital juxtaposes Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 3 in C sharp BWV848 (a staple piece from Clara’s recital repertoire) with three of Clara’s own works from 1845, all performed by Gamal Khamis (Winner of the accompaniment prizes at the 2017 Royal Overseas League and Ferrier Awards competitions). The concert ends with another piece that nods towards the Baroque – Brahms’ Handel Variations Op. 24 (dedicated to Clara), performed by Mishka Rushdie Momen who Imogen Cooper has hailed as “a really compelling talent”, garnering high praise for her “rare ability to communicate the essential meaning of whatever she plays” (Richard Goode).
The second day of the Clara Schumann Festival concludes with familiar numbers from Robert’s Myrthen, which he presented to Clara as a gift on their wedding day, and some Rückert settings from Clara and Robert’s joint opus. Entitled “Clara & Robert”, this programme also includes Clara’s early Variations a Theme by Robert Schumann Op. 20. The second half of this concert follows a similar vein; Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte Op. 98, with its longing for a distant loved one, precedes Robert’s Fantasy in C which includes a brief quotation from the Beethoven cycle, undoubtedly penned with Clara in mind.
Considered one of her best works, Clara’s Piano Trio in G minor Op. 17 (her only piano trio) opens the last day of the festival. This one-hour recital, “Clara & Brahms”, pairs Clara’s lyrical trio with one of her personal favourites – Brahms’ dramatic and turbulent Piano Trio in C minor Op. 101. Both works will be performed by the Busch Trio (Winner of 2012 Royal Overseas League Competition, and Prize Winner at the 2013 International Schumann Chamber Music Award), of whom The Times wrote: “what impressed most was the group’s effortless musicianship and unity of thought and attack. The threesome even seemed to be breathing in synch.”
Felix Mendelssohn and his close friendship with the Schumanns (and Brahms) is celebrated in “The Mendelssohn Connection” on Sun 24 Feb 2019 3.30pm. The tight-knit nature of this friendship group is reflected by the opening works – 2 Brahms settings of poetry by Felix Schumann (son of Clara and Robert, who they named after Felix Mendelssohn). The rest of the programme consists solely of works by Felix Mendelssohn – a selection of Lieder; his Lieder ohne Worte Book 5 Op. 62 for solo piano (dedicated to Clara), with its well-known Ein Frühlingslied; and, to conclude, the stunning Piano Four Hands in A MWV T 4 ‘Allegro Brilliant’ Op. 92, which Clara and Felix played together in Leipzig.
The final concert begins with two pieces as a memento of her friendship with the violinist Joseph Joachim: firstly, Clara’s own 3 Romances, one of her more frequently performed works nowadays; and secondly, the F-A-E Sonata which the composers dedicated to Joseph. This piece was first played through at a friendly get together by Clara and Joseph at Clara’s home. Both works will be performed by members of the Busch Trio. The Clara Schumann Festival ends with Brahms’ Vier ernste Gesänge, written towards the end of his life. The songs were first played to a group of close friends at a private gathering immediately after Clara’s funeral. After the cycle was published, Brahms sent a copy to Clara’s daughter Marie Schumann. Accompanying the score was a letter in which Brahms wrote: “…You will not be able to play through these songs just now because the words would be too affecting. But I beg you to regard them… as a true memorial to your beloved mother.” Brahms passed away 11 months after Clara.
Vong, Festival Curator said: “Many will recognise Clara Schumann as the wife of Robert Schumann. However, in reality, she seems to have been so much more: not only did she juggle an international solo career with being a mother of eight (a feat in itself), Clara inspired a huge amount of music and this short festival features only a fraction of it. Selections of Clara’s own output are featured alongside works by household names to whom she was muse, friend, and colleague. In an age when women endured endless inequalities, Clara Schumann displayed remarkable resilience, determination, and devotion to music.”