Stephen Barber
MusicWeb International
July 2020

Clara Schumann was a child prodigy and, like Mozart, was carefully trained by her father for her eventual highly successful career as a concert pianist. She also learned to compose and wrote chiefly piano music and songs, later with the encouragement of her husband Robert Schumann, until his death. After that she abandoned composition to concentrate on her performing career as a pianist, since she was left with a large family to support.

Her Piano Trio is one of only two chamber works that she left (the other was a set of Three Romances for violin and piano). It was written in 1846, before any of her husband’s three works in this form; it actually inspired the first of them. It is in four movements, in the classical model with fast outer movements, a scherzo second movement and a lyrical third. It begins with Beethovenian seriousness though later moves to an idiom more like that of her husband. The scherzo has an elfin character which reminded me of the fairy music of Mendelssohn, who was their friend. The third has a beautiful melody, first announced on the piano, and the finale again strikes a Beethovenian note and features a fugal passage which impressed Mendelssohn and Joseph Joachim. The writing throughout is confident and idiomatic and one can only regret that she did not write more chamber music.

Fanny Mendelssohn (sometimes also referred to as Fanny Hensel, using her husband’s surname) was also a virtuoso pianist but was not given the same encouragement to compose as her brother Felix. However, in adult life she and her brother were close, encouraging each other’s compositions and offering each other friendly criticism. She was also close to Clara Schumann, and she wrote her own Piano Trio a year after Clara’s. Sadly, it was one of Fanny’s last compositions as she died early of a stroke. Her Trio is a bold and forceful work with a particularly demanding piano part. Like its model, it is in four movements. The influence of Beethoven is clear, and indeed the anger and passion conveyed in the work seems far greater than in the works of her brother. Themes are memorable, and the whole work bristles with energy.

Her string quartet is an earlier work, again in four movements. (Two of them were reworked from an unfinished piano sonata.) Again, this is a rather fierce work, though the central Romanze is in very much the world of early German Romanticism. I found it quite gripping. It is a shame that Felix disapproved of it; this may be why she did not attempt another quartet. (After her death he wrote his F minor quartet Op 80, his finest, in her memory.)

These performances by members of the Nash Ensemble are full of fire and vigour, with no shortage of expressive nuance when called for. The recording is up to Hyperion’s high standards and the booklet has helpful notes. There are a number of other recordings of all the works here, but mostly coupling Clara’s work with those of her husband and Fanny’s with those of her brother. If you want to leave Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn out of it, or simply want to explore some fine early romantic chamber music, this will do very well. I have been delighted to make the acquaintance of these fine compositions and can thoroughly recommend this coupling. What a shame circumstances prevented these composers from writing more.