The Romantic Piano Concerto series, Volume 78 – music of Clara Schumann

The Romantic Piano Concerto 78 – Clara Schumann

Schumann, Clara: Piano Concerto In A Minor

Hiller, F: Konzertstück, Op. 113

Herz: Rondo de concert, Op. 27

Kalkbrenner: Le rêve, Op. 113

Howard Shelley (piano/conductor), Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra

Hyperion CDA 68240 @ £14.25 plus P&P

About this recording ….

No fewer than four composers vie for attention in volume 78 of the Romantic Piano Concerto. There’s only one official piano concerto here, but it’s a remarkable work from a composer in her mid-teens.

Clara Schumann enjoyed an altogether remarkable life and career. Her marriage to Robert Schumann has been well documented; her devotion to her family and the series of tragedies with which she had to cope while maintaining the exhausting and demanding life of a concert pianist would have defeated a lesser woman. As remarkable, given the social and cultural prohibitions of the time, was the fact that she also composed music—at least, until her mid-thirties when her career as a performer and the burden of single-handedly caring for her children (following Robert’s confinement in an asylum) became all-consuming. ‘Composing gives me great pleasure,’ she wrote. ‘There is nothing that surpasses the joy of creation, if only because through it one wins hours of self-forgetfulness, when one lives in a world of sound.’

Already hailed as a child prodigy pianist, Clara Wieck (as she then was) began writing her Piano Concerto in A minor, Op 7, at the tender age of fourteen. The final movement was the first to be written, originally a single movement Concertsatz, and orchestrated with the help of her father’s student, Robert Schumann. His manuscript orchestration of (what became) the finale was written out in 1833 or, at the latest, early 1834. (Rather aptly, the autograph manuscript of his own A minor piano concerto from eleven years later shows traces of Clara’s handwriting, particularly in the last movement.) It is as long as the other movements combined and, by some margin, the most technically demanding for the soloist, providing a vivid illustration of what an accomplished virtuoso Clara Wieck was at this stage of her musical development.

Some listeners may feel, too, that it is the most successful of the three. The first movement, melodically somewhat under-nourished, is replete with the passagework and rhetorical gestures of those composers to whom, thanks to her father’s teaching regime, she was in thrall: Kalkbrenner, Hummel, Herz and the like. After a stormy octave passage in E major, via a single bar (marked ‘adagio’ and ‘a piacere senza tempo’), the second movement begins, without a break, in the key of A flat major. This Romanze (‘andante non troppo con grazia’) is to be played with ‘la melodia ben marcato e legato’—and indeed the principal ‘melodia’ is most appealing, especially when taken up by the solo cello later in the movement. Is it too fanciful to suppose that Brahms, who was to become so close to Clara and who later used the same unusual (for a piano concerto) device of a solo cello in the slow movement, might have got the idea from this work? Once again, the music subsides (poco a poco ritenuto) before linking, by means of a drum roll and trumpet fanfare, into the high spirits of the last movement.

Linking the three movements of a concerto was a novel idea in 1833, the most famous example being Mendelssohn’s Concerto No 1 in G minor, Op 25, premiered in Munich in 1831. He played it for the first time in Clara’s home city of Leipzig on 29 October 1835—and it was he who, just eleven days later, conducted the premiere of Clara’s concerto at the Gewandhaus with its young composer as soloist. (At the same concert she also played Mendelssohn’s Capriccio brillant, Op 22, and J S Bach’s Triple Concerto in D minor with Mendelssohn and Louis Rakemann as her co-soloists—remarkably, the first time that any of Bach’s music had ever been played in the Gewandhaus.) After some revision, the concerto, Clara Schumann’s only extant orchestral composition, was published in 1836 with a dedication to the illustrious violinist, composer and conductor Louis Spohr.

Howard Shelley follows this with another three-movements-in-one work for piano and orchestra, a concerto in all but name, and one which makes an apt appendage to his 2007 recording with his Tasmanian players of all three of the named piano concertos by Ferdinand Hiller (Volume 45 of this series, on Hyperion CDA67655). As was noted in the booklet accompanying that release, it is extraordinary that such a prodigious musician—piano virtuoso, composer, conductor, impresario, writer on music and close friends with Alkan, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Cherubini, Meyerbeer, Rossini and Berlioz among others—should have been so thoroughly forgotten within two decades of his death. His oeuvre of more than 200 opus numbers includes operas (none of which were successful), chamber music, choral works, a huge amount of two-piano and solo piano music, most of it waiting to be discovered, as well as some eleven symphonies without opus numbers.

If his Piano Concerto No 2 in F sharp minor, Op 69, is the best of Hiller’s works in that genre—and indeed among the finest of all Romantic Piano Concertos—the Konzertstück, Op 113, must be placed not so very far beneath it. The first page of the score is given a title—Alla Marcia—and Hiller requests it to be played ‘allegro energico e con fuoco’. One might, with some justification, venture the opinion that the (initially) arresting dotted motif of the march that dominates the first ‘movement’ outstays its welcome by several minutes. The composer seems unwilling to develop the idea in any more than a superficial manner, though the writing for the soloist is bold and virtuosic, and the orchestration effective at the very least, in the same ostensibly effortless, competent manner as any other well-trained German musician of that period.

After some exacting passagework (apart from a good octave technique, the soloist must have fluent allegro semiquavers in thirds and fourths), the music gradually quietens over twenty-seven transitional bars and modulates from C major to A flat major, the key of the second section marked ‘andante religioso’ (9’23”). After the arpeggiated chorale tune has been heard twice, there is an unusual interlude of fourteen bars with the soloist playing a tremolando in both hands, after which the orchestra takes up the theme with the piano offering an accompaniment in octaves above it. The music dies to a pianissimo tonic chord, followed by a link of fifteen bars that leads without a break into the final section (at 13’47”). This also has a title—Saltarello—and a lively one it proves to be (presto in 6/8). Unlike the Alla Marcia, Hiller overflows with ideas to vary the relentless dancing stream of triplets, introducing an attractive second syncopated subject (in octaves), some cruelly testing thirds played simultaneously in both hands (con forza), and a delightfully airy further motif (heard only once), before soloist and orchestra jostle their boisterous way to the final pages in a friendly discourse both seem reluctant to bring to a conclusion. The score is dedicated to the Austrian virtuoso Alfred Jaëll (1832–1882).

Howard Shelley and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra have recorded seven of the eight piano concertos by Henri Herz on volumes 35, 40 and 66 of the Romantic Piano Concerto series (Hyperion CDA67465, CDA67537 and CDA68100—the orchestral parts for No 6 are presumed lost). The latter volume also featured three further works for piano and orchestra. Here is a fourth, his Rondo de concert, an ear-tickling charmer unlikely to have been heard anywhere for well over a century—and, sadly, unlikely to find a life beyond the recording studio, given the constitution of present-day public concerts.

The original title-page of Herz’s Op 27 reads thus: Rondo de concert pour le Piano-Forte Avec Accompagnement de deux Violons, Alto et Basse Ad-Libitum Dedié à Mademoiselle Emilie Seilliere et Composé par Henri Herz. It was also printed as a piano solo (without the dedication). There is an attractive, graceful introduction, typical of Herz—a slow version (larghetto cantabile) of what will become the second subject of the rondo proper—before a cadenza and the main theme: a jaunty dance-like air with a pedal point in the tonic key of A major. Herz’s dedicatee, incidentally, was a member of a wealthy French banking family, became the Countess of Sommariva and was the subject of a famous painting (1833) by Charles Boulanger de Boisfremont.

Herz’s music makes ‘no pretence at depth or intensity’, observed Arthur Loesser in his magisterial Men, Women and Pianos (Simon & Schuster, 1954), ‘but contain[s] many a graceful loop of arpeggio, many a thrum of titillating repeated notes, many a provocative octave leap’. The success or failure of such a bon-bon relies entirely on the execution of the soloist who must combine those characteristics for which Herz was so renowned. When he first toured the United States in 1846, even the conservative Bostonian critic John Sullivan Dwight fell under his spell, praising ‘the exquisite finish’ of his playing and stating that the ‘precision and delicacy of his touch surpassed everything we have heard’. (For further biographical information on Henri Herz, the reader is referred to the booklet for Volume 35.)

The final work of this volume, Le rêve, also forms an appendage to earlier recordings by the same artists: Friedrich Kalkbrenner’s four piano concertos and the Adagio ed Allegro di bravura, Op 102, can be found on volumes 41 and 56 of Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series (CDA67535 and CDA67843) with full details of Kalkbrenner’s life and career. He was not the most popular personality among his peers, mocked as much for his vanity and name-dropping as his snobbery and conceit. When Clara Schumann heard a sextet by Kalkbrenner at a concert (though it might as easily have been Le rêve), she noticed the composer sitting in the front row ‘smiling sweetly, and highly satisfied with himself and his creation. He always looked as if he were saying, “Oh God, I and all mankind must thank Thee that Thou hast created a mind like mine.”’

Le rêve, composed in 1833, is an effective little showpiece that ‘displays himself in all that natural, virtuoso amiability, which we prize so highly in him’, as Robert Schumann wrote when reviewing Kalkbrenner’s fourth piano concerto. ‘Let him keep his old, well-deserved fame, as one of the most gifted and masterly pianoforte composers for hand and finger—one who uses light weapons with the greatest possible dexterity—and let him delight us anew with his dazzling trills and flying triplets; we esteem them far more highly than his four-part fugue passages, his falsely melancholy suspensions, etc.’ Written in F sharp minor (the ‘romantic’ key), Le rêve is dedicated to Czerny and subtitled ‘Grande Fantaisie’—almost a medley of contrasting tempi, moods and melodies, ending with a march that utilizes machine-gun octaves, brilliant scale passages and all the other formidable arsenal of weapons at Kalkbrenner’s disposal. Whatever his faults as a man and composer, he certainly knew his way around the keyboard.

Jeremy Nicholas © 2019 

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