Allegro affettuoso [15'00]
Allegro vivace [11'38]
Angela Hewitt’s recordings of Schumann’s solo piano works for Hyperion have been described as ‘revelatory … something to cherish’ (Gramophone) and ‘unreservedly superb’ (The Guardian). Now she turns her attention to the works for piano and orchestra in a magnificent release which includes the beloved Piano Concerto in A minor—one of the most treasured concertos in the repertoire—and two other works also written for Clara Schumann.
Hewitt’s trademark clarity of line, and her technical control which never limits the expression of passion, are clearly in evidence. She is supported by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and the brilliant Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu. A fascinating commentary by Hewitt herself completes this album which is sure to delight her ever-increasing legion of fans.
Other recommended albums
When Robert Schumann left his native Zwickau at the age of eighteen to study law in Leipzig, he still didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do with his life. His father, a successful bookseller, had died suddenly two years previously, and in his will left an extra 200 thalers a year to Robert if he attended university—something his three elder brothers had never done. The only musical member of his family, Robert started learning the piano at the age of seven with the town organist, Johann Gottfried Kuntsch, whose lessons Schumann later described as useless. Until he arrived in Leipzig he was largely self-taught. Hardly a prodigy, he did make his mark as an improviser, and as a child he liked to illustrate the personalities of his friends with musical portraits at the piano. It is amazing to discover that he never heard a symphony orchestra until he was seventeen years old, and that he did so only by going to Dresden. He needed to get out of provincial Zwickau, and moving to Leipzig was his means of escape. The fact that the lady he was desperately in love with at the time—Agnes Carus, a married woman eight years his senior and a singer with whom he had discovered the lieder of Schubert—was also about to move there didn’t hurt.
What Schumann did know, or at least soon realized, was that if he wanted to be a composer he had to be able to play his own works. Mendelssohn, Liszt, Chopin, Thalberg—all of these contemporaries were virtuosi who wowed audiences not just with their compositions but with their own playing as well. Soon after Schumann arrived in Leipzig, he began taking lessons with Friedrich Wieck, who made him start back at the beginning with boring finger exercises that had to be endlessly repeated. Schumann had always wanted to do things his own way, and this couldn’t have been easy for him. It also couldn’t have been easy seeing Wieck’s daughter Clara at the tender age of eight already playing the A minor concerto by Hummel that he himself was struggling to learn.
After two years of studying law in Leipzig and Heidelberg (with a trip to Italy thrown in for diversion), Schumann finally realized that music had to be his life. His family was not pleased. Wieck took him on as a full-time student and lodger. But a year later Schumann began to experience numbness in his right hand. What now would be regarded as repetitive strain injury was then much less understood, and by 1832 Schumann realized that he would never be a pianist. He would have to be satisfied simply as a composer.
During those years as a young student, Robert had tried his hand at composing a piano concerto, and got as far as almost completing the solo part of one in F major. He also attempted to turn his Opus 1, the Abegg Variations, into a work for piano and orchestra, but again left it incomplete. We now know that it was he who orchestrated the finale of Clara’s own piano concerto, written when she was just fourteen years old. In early 1839, when Robert and Clara were fighting her father’s opposition to their engagement, he tried again to compose a piano concerto while in Vienna. Clara, writing from Paris where she was undertaking a concert tour as a final obligation to her father, gave him further encouragement: ‘Please do not hold it against me, dear Robert, when I tell you that I have a strong desire for you to write for orchestra as well. Your imagination and your spirit are too grand for the frail piano. See if you cannot accomplish such a thing?’ He did try, but again was unsuccessful in completing it. His description of the attempt, however, is prophetic. Calling it something ‘between a symphony, concerto and grand sonata’ he could have been describing the work that was later to become the first movement of his Piano Concerto in A minor, Op 54.
In September 1840 Clara and Robert finally married. After years of producing one masterpiece for solo piano after another (his first twenty-three opus numbers are solo piano works) he turned gloriously to song, and in the space of a single year wrote something like 168 of them. Alongside his composing, he was editor of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. This didn’t bring in much income, and he knew the time had come to prove himself with a big symphonic work. His first success in that field came with his ‘Spring’ Symphony, sketched in just four days and premiered at the Gewandhaus on 31 March 1841 with Mendelssohn conducting.
Just over a month later, he began work on a Phantasy for piano and orchestra, again working with great speed and completing it in ten days. The following week he orchestrated it, and a few months later made some revisions. It was first played through during a rehearsal for his ‘Spring’ Symphony at the Gewandhaus on 13 August 1841. The orchestra’s concertmaster, Ferdinand David, conducted, and Clara, two weeks away from giving birth to their first child, was of course at the piano. In her diary she wrote: ‘I also played the Fantasie in A minor; unfortunately, the performer herself had little pleasure (in the empty auditorium, that is), she heard neither herself nor the orchestra. But I played it twice and found it wonderful! When properly rehearsed, it is certain to give audiences the greatest pleasure. The piano is superbly woven together with the orchestra—you cannot conceive of one without the other.’
It seems, however, that nobody much wanted a one-movement work. Despite many attempts, a publisher could not be found and the work was put aside. Another four years passed before Schumann worked on it again. He generally immsersed himself in one genre at a time, and 1842 was his year for chamber music. His Piano Quintet Op 44, with its virtuoso piano part, served as a pseudo-concerto for Clara, still awaiting the real thing. In 1843 Schumann devoted himself to large-scale choral works, and the following year Robert and Clara undertook a five-month tour of Russia. Robert was seriously ill for some time after his return from Russia, and at the end of 1844 they moved to Dresden in order to find more peace and quiet to work.
When Schumann did finally turn his attention to his piano concerto once more, he started by composing the third movement finale, calling it a Rondo. Only after completing that did he write the Intermezzo that connects this with the original first movement (which he then revised). It also seems that the bridge passage connecting the Intermezzo with the Rondo gave him particular trouble (there exist seven different versions). We are all so familiar with this music now that it seems so evident, but it wasn’t arrived at easily.
John Worthen in his excellent biography of Schumann notes how ironic it was that Schumann finally gave Clara ‘her’ concerto at a time in her life when she could hardly practise. By now she had three children and knew a fourth was on its way (she was pregnant ten times in fourteen years), and because Robert needed silence to compose she could only practise when he took his afternoon walk. Often she was too exhausted by that time to get much work done, and her performances were not frequent. But finally she had her concerto, and the first performance was given in the Hôtel de Saxe in Dresden on 4 December 1845. Ferdinand Hiller, to whom the concerto is dedicated, conducted the orchestra of the subscription concerts.
The concerto was a success, as was confirmed by the review in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung: ‘We all have reason to hold this composition in very high esteem and place it among the best by this composer, primarily because the usual monotony of the genre is happily avoided and the entirely obbligato orchestra part, fashioned with great love and care, is given its full due without leaving the impression of impairing the piano’s achievements, and both parts keep up their independence in a beautiful alliance.’ The second performance (although it is often referred to mistakenly as the premiere) was given in the Leipzig Gewandhaus on New Year’s Day 1846. There seems to be some confusion over who conducted: some sources say Mendelssohn, others say Niels Wilhelm Gade, who shared the conductor’s duties at the time with his illustrious colleague.
Few pieces attract the attention of the audience so quickly as this concerto. As Michael Steinberg so vividly writes: ‘The orchestra fires the starting gun, a single eighth-note [quaver] E, and the piano moves out of the blocks with a powerful cascade of fully voiced chords.’ The soloist, in fact, hardly stops playing during the entire concerto. The winds are given the initial statement of the opening melody, one in which the ‘Clara’ motif of descending notes—abundantly used throughout Schumann’s piano works—is fully apparent. There is no change of tempo marking here, even if the ‘tradition’ is to slow down. The subsequent piano entry of the theme is powerfully expressive but intimate at the same time. The dialogue between piano and orchestra is constant, each taking their turn to be soloist and accompanist. This is most striking in the slower passage, marked Andante espressivo, in the middle of the first movement—a magical moment of repose, where the clarinet and piano are the featured soloists. It is interesting to compare the piano part in the central Più animato with what remains of that early Phantasy in A minor, where the writing is a lot more difficult in the later version. Perhaps Clara complained that it wasn’t showy enough? The written-out cadenza is perfectly paced, and gave Clara the chance to shine. It begins with counterpoint, goes through some recitative-like passages, gains huge momentum with a brilliant outburst of chords over descending octaves, and returns passionately to the opening theme. From there the cadenza dissolves into a trill, but ends not with the standard cadence but rather leads directly into the re-entry of the orchestra, now giving us the theme much faster but in hushed tones. The crescendo to the final, uncompromising chords is dramatic to say the least. I will never forget the time I performed it for an audience of school children, and one very young boy, immediately after the last chord, let out a spontaneous ‘Wow!’. I think Schumann would have been pleased with that.
Having written the last movement next, it is understandable that Schumann didn’t want anything too ‘meaty’ for the ‘slow’ movement, when he finally got round to composing it. After the drama and shifting moods of the first movement, a short Intermezzo seems just the thing. Here, the notes of the first movement’s descending motif are turned upside down and now go upwards, but the chamber-music feeling continues and is even amplified. The clarinet again features strongly, but so does the cello section, called upon to give us a ‘big tune’. So often this central section can become distorted, wallowing in sentiment rather than retaining its confidentiality.
The bridge that Schumann finally settled on to link the Intermezzo with the finale returns to the ‘Clara’ motif, first in the major, then in the minor, before bursting into the theme of the Allegro vivace. Here the ascending notes create a sense of unbounded joy. This movement, in my opinion, is often taken far too fast; Schumann’s metronome marking of 72 to the dotted minim seems entirely apt for once, especially if you want to bring out its waltz-like character (the coda especially has a terrific swing to it). The first time I ever performed this concerto was in the finals of the Schumann Competition in 1976, held in Zwickau (Schumann’s birthplace). The conductor of the orchestra from nearby Halle was determined that none of the finalists would take this third movement too fast, and to this day I can still see him leaning over me, terrifyingly beating in a strict tempo and preventing any possibility of rushing. All the passagework in the piano part must sing and be heard. All that scurrying about (as it so often sounds like) in different keys during the most difficult moment of the concerto—where Schumann inserts a prime example of his beloved rhythmic games, terrifying every conductor, even Mendelssohn himself it seems—must sound easy and coherent. And danceable. But what an exhilarating piece of music it is. Clara waited a long time for it, but it was worth it in the end.
It’s curious that Schumann’s writing for piano and orchestra seems to have occurred about every four years: the Phantasy in 1841; the remainder of the Piano Concerto in 1845; and the two separate pieces for piano and orchestra in 1849 and 1853 respectively. The Introduction and Allegro appassionato, Op 92, was sketched in just two days in September 1849, and the full score finished a week later. Clara got her hands on it right away, but at its premiere the following February in Leipzig she wasn’t feeling well and it was a flop. The second performance in Düsseldorf a month later, with her husband conducting, was a resounding success. Still, it remained neglected for some time, which is a pity because the magical introduction alone makes it worth hearing. Schumann was immersed in Byron’s dramatic poem Manfred at the time (resulting in his Manfred Overture), and some of its urgent despair can also be heard in the opening theme of the Allegro. At one point the theme of the introduction returns in B major in a passage that, if you were to hear it by itself, would make you think of Brahms.
Schumann, however, hadn’t yet met the young Johannes Brahms. He was to appear on the doorstep of the Schumann household a few weeks after Clara’s thirty-fourth birthday, in 1853. As a present Robert had given Clara not only a new grand piano, but had placed on top of it the manuscript of his new Introduction and Concert-Allegro, Op 134. Her joy was boundless. The short introduction opens with pizzicato chords in the orchestra, interrupted by the piano with a lyrical theme in triple metre that will reappear in the Allegro with an extra beat added. In the Allegro, a new theme is introduced by the pianist which is of a tenderness that only Schumann could produce. An extended cadenza takes up almost a quarter of the entire piece and is a wonderful rhapsody on the material already presented. The first performances were given by Clara in Holland (Utrecht, The Hague, Amsterdam) in November–December 1853 with Robert conducting. Less than three months later Robert tried to commit suicide by throwing himself into the Rhine and was subsequently placed in the asylum at Endenich. Clara was not allowed to visit him; but Brahms went, and during one of his visits in February 1855 Schumann wrote in his notebook that Op 134 was to be dedicated to him. Brahms wrote to Clara: ‘You know quite well what delight your husband has given me in dedicating this particular work to me. This and the Violin Fantasy [Op 131] are the concertos of his which I love the most.’ After her husband’s death the following year Clara no longer performed the piece, but Brahms did so in Vienna in 1869.
Angela Hewitt © 2012