Hyperion monthly sampler – July 2012
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Movement 1: Allegro affettuoso
Movement 2: Intermezzo: Andantino grazioso –
Movement 3: Allegro vivace
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.
from notes by Angela Hewitt © 2012