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Grieg & Schumann (C): Piano Concertos

Alexandra Dariescu (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra, Tianyi Lu (conductor)
Download only Available Friday 16 August 2024This album is not yet available for download
Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: September 2023
St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Tim Oldham
Engineered by Tom Lewington
Release date: 16 August 2024
Total duration: 51 minutes 45 seconds
The nineteenth century was something of a golden era for the piano. New technologies allowed the development of pianos with bolder, brighter sounds and a wider range; mass production made them available to a larger population than previously, and ever-improving travel routes meant that piano virtuosi could tour widely, making them a staple on the growing numbers of public concert programmes. Unsurprisingly, piano composition boomed, and some of the best-loved works in the repertoire today came out of the nineteenth century, from Felix Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words to Chopin’s Nocturnes and Brahms’s Piano Concertos.

Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor certainly belongs on the list of well-known and often-played nineteenth-century piano works. With its recognisable melodies, easy lyricism and grand gestures, it has become beloved of pianists (and comedians) worldwide. Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto, however, has been played less widely. This is the first album to pair her concerto with Grieg’s, even though they were contemporaries and acquaintances. Grieg’s work is more often put with the other Schumann: Clara’s husband Robert. Grieg had admired Robert’s work from a young age, and the concerto in particular—he called it ‘inspired from beginning to end’, standing ‘unparalleled in music literature.’ But it was partly thanks to Clara that Grieg was introduced to the work. In 1858, two years after Robert’s death, fifteen-year-old Grieg travelled to Leipzig to study at the Conservatoire. It was there that he heard Robert’s Piano Concerto at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, played by the pianist he described as ‘the bewitching Clara Schumann’.

It was predominantly because of Clara that Robert Schumann’s music became known at all. She championed his piano works when nobody else would, and presented him in her concert programmes as one of the future 'greats', putting his pieces alongside works by composers like Bach and Beethoven. Born Clara Wieck in 1819, Clara redefined the child prodigy in an era that was experiencing considerable child prodigy fatigue. They had been all the rage in Mozart’s day, but by the early nineteenth century audiences were tired of seeing young children (and teenagers with several years implausibly knocked off their birth date) of questionable ability trotted out on concert stages by ambitious parents hoping to make their family’s name.

Attendees of Clara’s first concerts would surely have been expecting another of these 'Wunderkinder'—when she made her first public appearance she was only nine years old and trained by her father, piano teacher Friedrich Wieck. From the very start, though, audiences and critics responded enthusiastically to Clara’s playing and her extraordinary ability to marry technical ability with emotional range. As the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung put it in 1832, ‘the great skill, assurance, and strength with which she plays even the most difficult movements so easily is highly remarkable. Even more remarkable is the spirit and feeling of her performance; one could scarcely wish for more.’

Over her lifetime, Clara would become one of the century’s most celebrated virtuosi, and her prowess as a pianist is overwhelmingly evident in her own Piano Concerto. Clara composed as well as performed from a young age, and in nearly all of her early concerts she included one of her own works or improvisations. Her first publication came when she was just eleven (her Op 1 Quatre Polonaises), and was succeeded by a string of compositions that demonstrate Clara had a keen ear for what would make a popular success. Her early works are written in the brilliant, bravura style that went down well with concert audiences, especially works like her Op 8 Variations de concert pour le pianoforte sur la Cavatine du Pirate de Bellini (1837), taking themes from popular operas and turning them into a vehicle for extravagant displays of pianistic fireworks.

Although technical difficulties abound in the Piano Concerto, it shows Clara starting to move away from the overt flamboyance of the concert pieces towards the more 'serious' tone that would define her later works and piano repertoire. It began life in 1833 when Clara was fourteen, as a single-movement Konsertsatz, which would eventually be reworked as the concerto’s third movement. Robert was intimately acquainted with Clara’s concerto from its earliest days. After hearing Clara play in 1828 he had applied to Friedrich Wieck for piano lessons and became his student, then lodging with the family from 1830. By 1833, the fourteen-year-old Clara and twenty-three-year-old Robert were extremely close; she was already playing his compositions including Papillons Op 2, and he orchestrated the Konzertsatz before Clara premiered it in 1834.

Over the next year Clara added a first and second movement, and transformed the Konsertsatz from a stand-alone concert work into a rondo finale, altering Robert’s orchestration to do so. She premiered the full work herself with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra on 9 November 1835, Felix Mendelssohn conducting, and it was published two years later. She played the concerto a number of times through the 1830s, and it was well received. Using the kind of gendered language that was standard at the time, the Allgemeiner musikalischer Anzeiger declared that she ‘has dared with extreme boldness to take flight poetically; and that with such compelling energy as is customarily never displayed by gentle femininity. When one examines this work with all seriousness, one has to marvel approvingly at the masculinity of the spirit that pervades it, and the technical difficulties leave absolutely no doubt about the widely admired virtuosity of the composer.’

One of the things that struck contemporaneous critics was the formal innovation in the Concerto. Although it is in three movements, they are played attacca, interlinking them such that the entire work sits between a concerto and fantasy structure, similar to Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No 1 in G minor (1831) which Clara certainly knew. The second movement ‘Romanze’ is in two halves: the first for solo piano, and the second a duet for cello and piano (an instrumentation that Brahms would later incorporate into the slow movement of his own second piano concerto, possibly inspired by Clara’s work). The drastically reduced orchestration after the bold and dynamic first movement gives it a feeling of intense intimacy, accentuated by the movement’s key. The concerto is in A minor, but the second movement is down a semitone, in A flat (prepared in the first movement), contributing to the second movement’s dreamlike quality. It was an unusual choice, and one reviewer felt that given the gender of the composer, it was better explained as one of the ‘moods of women’ than as formal innovation. That may be, but Robert incorporated a similar A flat episode when he came to write his own A minor concerto six years later, plausibly inspired by Clara’s work. The rondo that closes the work is a testament to the teenage Clara’s extraordinary virtuosity, the exuberant finish offering the pianist plenty of technical challenges.

Although Clara played her concerto a number of times throughout the 1830s, by the time Grieg came to Leipzig in 1858 Clara had moved on to different repertoire. When she did play her own works, they were usually solo piano pieces and incorporated into programmes predominantly focused around Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann. When Grieg heard her play Robert’s concerto, however, he may have been hearing more of Clara’s compositional influence than he realised. There are striking similarities between the two pieces, including a third-movement motif that Robert duplicated, and there are passages in Clara’s hand in Robert’s autograph manuscript. And this is only the written record—given how closely Clara and Robert worked, especially after their marriage in 1840, it is impossible to know what she might have contributed to his piece that was not written down.

Grieg began work on his concerto in 1868, while he was in Denmark with his family. Born in Norway in 1843, by the time Grieg penned his concerto the twenty-five-year-old composer was widely acknowledged as a rising star in Norway. He had a handful of successful works behind him, including his Piano Sonata (1865) and Violin Sonata No 1 (1865), and he was gaining a reputation as both pianist and conductor. Just as important for his future reputation was his growing interest in nationalism. Norwegian politics during Grieg’s lifetime was dominated by the burgeoning nationalist movement. Norway had historically been a Danish principality, but was ceded to Sweden in 1814. A short war against Sweden resulted in uneasy half-independence for Norway; it had its own constitution and parliament, but would remain in ‘personal union’ with the Swedish king until 1905.

In many works Grieg did aim to express Norwegian national identity musically, and from 1864 onwards folk music became a prominent influence in pieces including the Lyric Pieces (1866-1901) and Haugtussa (1895-8). But his musical relationship to nationalism is complex; he was just as influenced by European trends as Norwegian. As in the Piano Concerto, he did not transcribe folk melodies directly but instead used Norwegian folk idioms to influence his own writing—and the Concerto owes as much to composers like the Schumanns as it does to Norwegian folk music.

From the moment of its premiere in Copenhagen in April 1869, Grieg’s Concerto was a popular success. The first movement strings together multiple themes, giving it a feeling of variety and continuously developing, constant movement. The Adagio begins with a similar dreamlike feel to Clara Schumann’s Romance, but Grieg opens up into more rhapsodic material for the pianist, creating an expansive, monumental mood. The second movement moves attacca into the lively finale, with its main theme loosely inspired by a Halling dance that brings the concerto to a triumphant close.

Leah Broad © 2024

Dear listener,
I grew up, perhaps like most of you, with music by our giants Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Grieg, Rachmaninov, Ravel … Over the years, it has been a fascinating journey to discover the other side of history that has somehow been forgotten about or neglected: Clara Schumann, Nadia Boulanger, Dora Pejačević, Leokadiya Kashperova, Germaine Tailleferre to name a few. So I got to know Clara Schumann’s Concerto and fell in love with this youthful piece, full of dreams, fiendish virtuosity and a testament to what an innovative performer and composer Clara was, even as a teenager.

The Grieg Piano Concerto was the very first romantic concerto I played with a professional orchestra many moons ago. There are so many stories related to performing this piece, from a tornado right before the concert in Richmond (Virginia US) to a venue with no piano (as they thought I was bringing my own) to visiting the Norwegian fjords and standing on top of the Pulpit Rock in Stavanger, feeling on top of the world.

Having lived with both concertos for so many years and performed them all around the world, I couldn’t help but notice striking similarities and connections, which Leah Broad beautifully reflects in detail in her notes. Recording with my dear friend Tianyi Lu, together with the brilliant Philharmonia Orchestra and the ever so supportive Signum team has been a dream come true and I am very grateful for all their dedication towards this meaningful project.

Recorded on one of the hottest days of the year, the sunshine sparkled divinely through the stained-glass windows of St Jude’s Church onto the piano and when it hit me, I realised once again what a responsibility we all have to show all sides of history, to mirror our society in concert programmes and to shine a light on the often-overlooked brilliance of female composers.

My heartfelt thanks and gratitude go out to my dearest friend and supporter, Jamie Rigler and his wonderful Lloyd E Rigler – Lawrence E Deutsch Foundation, without whom this album would have never been possible.

Dare to dream …

Alexandra Dariescu © 2024

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