Schumann Celebration

Scherzo in E flat minor, Op.4
Scherzo from F.A.E. Sonata (Sonatensatz)
Piano Quartet No.3 in C minor, Op.60
Die Flüchtlinge, Op.122/2
Intermezzo from F.A.E. Sonata [arr. Isserlis for cello and piano]
Frühlings Ankunft Op.79/19
Variations on an original theme in E flat, Op. posth. “Geister Variations”
Gebet, Op.135/5
Clara Schumann
Romanze in A minor, Op.21/1
Caprice No.14 [arr. Robert Schumann]

Steven Isserlis (cello); Jennifer Frautschi (violin)
Rachel Roberts (viola); Dénes Várjon (piano); Simon Callow (reader) & Cora Burggraaf (mezzo-soprano)

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 21 April, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Two recitals have been given at the Wigmore Hall in celebration of the music of Robert Schumann. The first was devoted exclusively to his works. This concert, however, had music from two important people in his life: his devoted wife, Clara, and his friend Johannes Brahms. With the aid of Simon Callow, who introduced the music, the concert attempted to present a chronology of the Schumanns’ association with Brahms, from their first meeting where Brahms delighted the Schumanns by playing some of his own compositions right up to Schumann’s utterly tragic and shocking mental demise. This story was told through the words and music.

After an introduction from Callow, Brahms’s Scherzo opened proceedings. This was one of the pieces that Brahms played to the Schumanns at their first meeting. Dénes Várjon played it as the youthful expression it surely is. The dramatic dynamic contrasts could have been more pronounced, but the control he gave to the furious sections worked well.

Callow’s role as M.C. was an accomplished affair. He clearly had great empathy with his subject matter, whether it related to Robert’s and Clara’s sexual appetite for each other, or, as the narrator in the melodrama “Die Flüchtlinge”, the elopement of two lovers during a storm. Várjon provided plenty of drama at the keyboard with the powerful crescendos and tremoloes being brought to full life whilst Callow revelled in the tale of the lovers and the rage of the people they left behind.

Two good friends of both Schumann and Brahms were Albert Dietrich (1829-1908) and Joseph Joachim (1831-1907). Joachim was surprised by the other three with a violin sonata based on his personal theme F.A.E. (“Frei, aber Einsam” – free, but alone). Brahms composed the Scherzo and Schumann the slow movement and finale. Later Schumann would jettison those parts not by him and compose two more movements for his Third Violin Sonata. The Scherzo found Jennifer Frautschi displaying great freshness in exploring the violin’s register, while in Schumann’s slow movement Steven Isserlis’s cello took centre-stage, the piano merely an accompaniment – both freedom and solitude.

The short song “Frühlings Ankunft” was conveyed as the optimistic welcoming of Spring that it is. Throughout, though, the mood was subdued because we knew what was coming. The Variations on an Original Theme, written just after Schumann’s suicide attempt, uses the theme from the preceding song. As an autobiographical statement, the music came across as heart-rending and tragic, particularly the fourth Variation. The third was far too muddy, offering no delicacy but the fifth left us in stunned silence, with the final chord left to die away.

The second half of the recital maintained the glum mood with “Gebet”, a setting of a poem written by Mary Queen of Scots while she was in captivity. The anguish and vitality of the music was well-conveyed and the wildness in Cora Burggraaf’s eyes was chilling.

Clara Schumann was, at this point in time, torn between Brahms and her husband. The Romanze, she told Brahms, was dedicated to him, yet she told Robert that it was dedicated to him! This mental dichotomy came across in the piano-playing very well, which felt, at one time, like a love letter and, at others, an outpouring to anyone who would listen. There was no consolation or conclusion in the music. The arrangement of Paganini’s Caprice No.14 came across as a child’s innocent writing but with the disillusionment of someone who had too many years of experience. This was all very sad and, if the purpose of the concert was to make one feel like Schumann, then it did!

Brahms’s final Piano Quartet rounded off this rather long evening of music and words. The composition took Brahms 20 years to complete (1855-75). Tonight’s programmers were clearly trying to propose a (dubious) link, somehow suggesting a chronological progression through the Quartet that mirrors the events in the Schumann household. Rather silly, and worth forgetting about.

The playing of the Quartet was the highlight of the evening, barring a few minor quibbles. The climaxes of the Allegro were well controlled but, more importantly, there was a reserved feel to the sighing passages. The darkness of the movement could have been more powerful at the close, but the thrust of the whole was sufficient to mitigate this. There was no hanging around in the scherzo, with some very crisp ensemble work. The subtlety of the slow movement was highlighted by Isserlis’s playing in his duet with the piano that opens the movement. The entry of the violin, though, was too noticeable, rather than an organic outgrowth; much more accomplished was Rachel Roberts when she joined in. Throughout, Várjon provided an unfailing presence underneath the trio of string players. Out of the quiet beginning of the finale came powerful determination, the violin always to the fore. The glorious climax and stately piano-playing were, perhaps, slightly out of place in this music, but the surprising C major close gave no sense of resolution. Maybe that was the point.

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