Something Old / Something New

Clara Wieck Schumann

September 13, 2019, marks the 200th birthday of pianist and composer Clara Wieck Schumann. The bicentennial year has already seen a number of recordings of her works, both on their own and paired with those of her husband Robert.

Schumann’s mother was singer Marianne Tromlitz Wieck, whose vocal influence is obvious in Clara’s work, even though her parents divorced when she was five. This left Clara in the care of her father, Friedrich Wieck, a piano teacher and owner of a piano shop. Clara, of course, started learning piano and music theory when she was a little girl. She met fellow child prodigy Robert Schumann when they were both nine. And soon they were both counted among the most celebrated pianists in Europe.

One of the new albums to come out for the bicentennial is the debut recording from young British pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason. Her musical family rivals the Bachs in sheer size and scope (the most famous being her cellist-brother, Sheku).

Kanneh-Mason’s Romance: The Piano Music of Clara Schumann (Decca) is devoted to Schumann’s solo works, as well as some chamber music and a concerto. The Piano Sonata in G minor, completed in 1841, stands up to works by Robert (whom she’d married in 1837), even though its 20-minute total length makes some describe it as a sonatina. It has not only grace, but also harmonic complexity and the energy and passion that make it a first-rate example of Romantic piano repertoire.

In her recording of the first-movement Allegro, Kanneh-Mason sometimes lacks the rhythmic clarity needed to give the piece sufficient elegance. But there are moments, especially in extended phrases, where the young pianist does seem to have an over-arching concept of where she’s headed, and her playing is very intelligent.

 

Like her husband and other composers of her era, Schumann had a fondness for very short pieces, or “miniatures.” She gave many of these the label “Romance,” and – hence the album title – Kanneh-Mason includes two sets of romances: Op. 11 for solo piano and Op. 22 for violin and piano, with violinist Elena Urioste.

The Op. 22 romances, interestingly, are among the first pieces Clara wrote in 1853 after she and Robert first heard the playing of Johannes Brahms, then only 20. Clara reported that he seemed to have been “sent straight from God.” The last movement of Op. 22, marked “Leidenschaftlich schnell” (Passionately fast), is played with a barely controlled desperation on the part of both Urioste and Kanneh-Mason, like a roiling spring that could burst at any moment.

 

Kanneh-Mason is not the only female performer to be inspired by Schumann’s bicentennial. Russian pianist Velislava Palacorova’s Robert und Clara Schumann (ASR Aktive Sound) covers some of the same ground as Kanneh-Mason’s offering.

The G minor sonata has four movements rather than the usual three, making its structure more like a chamber work. Schumann herself seems to have thought of the third-movement Scherzo as extra, since she reused only that movement in 1845 as part of her 4 Pièces fugitives, Op. 15.

Here is Palacorova’s recording of the Scherzo. While Palacorova emphasizes Schumann’s witty use of syncopation, a lighter touch would have served the movement well, as would a clearer stylistic contrast between the Scherzo proper and the darker section in minor.

 

Palacorova also includes the 3 Romances Op. 11. The third is marked Moderato, and the pianist gives a thoughtful, perhaps overly earnest, rendition of this meandering, fascinating piece.

 

Another CD celebrating the birthday girl comes from French pianist Marie Vermeulin. Clara & Robert Schumann includes the Op. 6 Soirée musicales by Clara and the Kinderszenen and Waldszenen miniatures by Robert.

This is the best of the lot by far. In the Nocturne from Soirée musicales, Vermeulin tugs at the phrases oh, so gently. Her patience and tenderness create an ethereal swirling of sound that gets to the very core of Romanticism.

Tucked away at the end of this collection is a Romance without opus number. In its opening gesture of thirds in the right hand, repeated throughout, Vermeulin manages to let the two pitches of each third be the tiniest bit out of phase, making them seem spontaneous; yet she never loses the shapes of Schumann’s harmonic ideas.

Daniel Levy’s recording Clara Schumann: Piano Works (Edelweiss Emission) is an uneven tribute to the composer. The Argentinian pianist includes the G minor sonata, three of the four Pièces fugitives, the Op. 11 Romances, and some Lieder.

Here’s the Finale Rondo from the G minor sonata. Levy has an effective way of bending the rhythm to emphasize the beginnings of phrases and sub-phrases, allowing himself a barely perceptible pause before downbeats. The playing is confident and fluid.

 

Unfortunately, things go downhill when soprano Cristina Mantese joins Levy for a few of the Lieder in the Op. 12 song cycle. In No. 14, “Liebst du um Schönheit.” Mantese’s voice is harsh and her vibrato relentless.

 

Because Lieder were an important part of the Schumanns’ life, I was hoping to find a wonderful new recording to share here. The final months of the year may yet yield a pleasant surprise, but so far, pickings are slim.

Myrtle and Rose: Songs by Clara and Robert Schumann is a self-produced CD by tenor Kyle Stegall and fortepianist Eric Zivian. While I admire the tenacity it took to create this album, I am not convinced by these performances.

During Op. 13, No. 1, “Ich stand in dunkel Träumen,” Stegall seems uncomfortable: there’s hesitation and a lack of steadiness in the voice. But there are also moments of technical and emotionally delicacy.

 

Stegall’s tone and phrasing flow better in the faster tempo of “Lorelei.” Zivian, however, struggles with the challenging accompaniment. This distracts from the intended magical effect of Heinrich Heine’s poem.

 

It’s inauspicious to end a birthday article on a weak note. In the absence of a better 2019 recording of Schumann’s songs, I propose we jump back about 20 years for a top-notch version. On the Decca label, soprano Barbara Bonney released a glorious collection of Lieder by Robert and Clara with Vladimir Ashkenazi at the piano.

Let’s try that “Lorelei” again, shall we, the way it’s meant to be done:

 

And one more birthday treat, if you happen to be a singer or pianist, or you just like to study scores: Edition Peters has released a gorgeous new bicentennial edition of Clara Schumann’s Lieder, edited by Daniel Grimwood. There’s nothing more 19th century than bellying up to a piano in your living room and playing music for yourself.