Sunday, January 26, 2020

Celebrating Clara Schumann's 200th at South Bay

Clara Schumann in 1857, photographed by Franz Hanfstaengl.


The Thies Consort, South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church

There’s a considerable group of fine musicians who are siblings or spouses of the acknowledged “great composers.” To mind immediately comes Mendelssohn's sister Fanny, who wrote almost as much music (much of it unpublished) as her older brother, while in the 20th century Alma Mahler’s small but distinguished output of songs bears witness to what she might have gone on to achieve compositionally had her career not become subservient to Gustav’s.

Clara in 1832, aged 13.
But the most significant such figure is surely that of Clara Schumann, linked to not one but two of the all-time “greats”—her husband Robert, and Johannes Brahms, from his first arrival at the Schumann household in September 1853 as a brilliant and aspiring young composer and pianist, to Clara’s death nearly 43 years later.

She was born on 13 September 1819. Piano lessons began when she was only four years old, and under intensive keyboard and other musical tutelage from her father she proved to be a child prodigy. Piano works of hers from age 11 onwards were published and continue to be performed, as well as later songs and short choral pieces. Her total output was relatively small, however, and she ceased original composition altogether after Robert Schumann died in 1856.

Robert Thies.
The South Bay Chamber Music Society’s first concert of 2020 was thus “A Tribute to Clara Schumann on her Bicentenary” that devoted the majority of its program to some of her most enduring works. Robert Thies, however—doubling here as leader of The Thies Consort as well as SBCMS Artistic Director—began the tribute with an introductory talk that concentrated, not so much on Clara’s works per se, as on her career following Robert Schumann’s death.

Alongside her tireless curatorship of his compositional legacy and ongoing support for Brahms’ work—as well as the small matter of raising seven children (an eighth died in infancy)—she embarked on and sustained for decades a career as a renowned touring virtuoso, establishing, as Mr. Thies noted, the practice of playing from memory (and thus necessitating much additional preparation time, down to this day, for recital pianists!). In addition, from 1878 she taught the piano at a conservatory in Frankfurt, thereby influencing playing technique for subsequent generations of pianists.

One of her last works was the Three Romances for Violin and Piano Op. 22, written in 1853, and the concert opened with these, played with warmth and grace by Jessica Guideri and Robert Thies. Though not hugely differentiated in mood and pace, they are melodically and texturally distinct enough—particularly the Leidenschaftlich schnell (Passionately fast) third, with its teeming arpeggiated accompaniment—to make one regret that she never composed a full-scale violin sonata, a reaction confirmed by the next work, her Piano Trio in G minor Op. 17 from 1846, in which Ms. Guideri and Mr. Thies were joined by John Walz, cello.

Notwithstanding the remarkably youthful Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 7, which patrons of the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra will have the not-to-be-missed chance to hear as part of its 2019-2020 season finale on May 30, the Piano Trio is Clara Schumann’s most ambitious, and most successful, large-scale composition.

The Thies Consort: l-r Jessica Guideri, Robert Thies, John Walz.
It follows the familiar four-movement pattern of sonata-design first movement, scherzo-and-trio, slow movement, and fast finale, but without any laboriousness or sense of stretching material to fill a large-scale form. A long-breathed first subject shared between all three instruments, punctuated by a peremptory fortissimo figure, leads to a well-contrasted, rhythmically unpredictable second theme. The exposition is marked to be repeated, and this was blessedly observed in The Thies Consort’s fine performance.

The first movement development immediately embarks on a contrapuntal pile-up of overlapping figures, truly exciting in this performance, before leading back to a full recapitulation. The delightfully tripping Scherzo that follows (also marked tempo di menuetto—Clara hedging her expressive bets?), is in ländler-ish contrast to the serious first movement, and gives way to a wistfully lingering Trio, before the Scherzo’s return.

The Andante third movement is again in ideal contrast, its songful main theme introduced on the piano and then taken up successively by the violin and the cello. Quickly, however, the movement passes into a dramatically dotted central section, equally concise, and then the main theme returns, led this time by the cello.

Phoebe Jevtovic Rosquist.
There’s no let-up in grip and memorability in the Allegretto finale, whose muscular main theme adapts well to fugal treatment in the development, and she maintains interest through to the movement’s dramatic end. All-in-all, Clara Schumann’s Piano Trio can hold its head alongside any work in the genre.

After the interval, her range was further demonstrated by six of her lieder, affectionately sung by Phoebe Jevtovic Rosquist, who in the absence of printed texts introduced each one before she sang it. Particularly notable were the gentle Liebst du um Schönheit (Do you love beauty?), Op. 12 no. 4; the dramatic Lorelei, where Robert Thies gave full expressive intensity to the driven, Erlkönig-like piano part; and the grandly valedictory Ich stand in dunkeln Träumen (I stood in dark dreams), Op. 13 no. 1.

Jessica Guideri and John Walz rejoined Robert Thies for the final item—not by Clara Schumann, but instead her illustrious mentee Johannes Brahms. This was his Piano Trio No. 3 in C minor, Op. 101, composed in 1886. From an opening as convulsively triumphant as that of the Third Symphony, the four movements of the Trio are as varied in mood as they are concise. Following the grand-scaled but nonetheless terse first movement, the Presto non assai Scherzo scurries in uneasy spasms. The Andante grazioso slow movement for much of its length keeps the piano and strings separate in their expression of its beauties, after which the Finale returns to shadows and truculence before it gathers itself to an energetic but withal uneasy conclusion.

Brahms and Clara Schumann in their latter years.
The Thies Consort gave the work a splendidly committed and coherent performance, that crowned a memorable concert. Clara Schumann described the Third Piano Trio as “wonderfully gripping… no previous work of Johannes has so completely carried me away. What a work it is, inspired throughout in its passion, its power of thought, its gracefulness, its poetry.” Yes, indeed.


South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, Montemalaga Drive, Rancho Palos Verdes, 3pm, Sunday, January 19, 2020.
Images: Clara Schumann: (1857) Wikimedia Commons, (1832) Robert-Schumann-Haus; Robert Thies: artist website; Robert Thies Consort: Elaine Lim; Phoebe Jevtovic Rosquist: artist website; Brahms and Clara Schumann: KALW.

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