A New Take on Clara Schumann

Portland Symphony Orchestra
Merrill Auditorium
Mar. 26, 2019
by Christopher Hyde

Guest conductor of the Portland Symphony, Ruth Reinhardt, came on stage Tuesday night like a bundle of energy, or a ball of St. Elmo’s fire, and proceded to give a large audience at Merrill Auditorium the ride of their lives. Sometimes she asked too much, and at others—much of the Clara Schumann piano concerto— she did virtually nothing, but the end result was always musical, and sometimes revelatory.

The Brahms Tragic Overture, Opus 81, is a strange piece. It seems like an answer to his lighter side, exposed in the Academic Festival Overture. This one was going to be as serious and “durch componiert” as humanly possible.

The result is an extremely dense texture that requires a relatively slow tempo to bring out the melodic lines. But no conductor since Bruno Walter,, who was accused of “melting” during the good parts of the symphonies, has  dared to take it as slowly as necessary

Reinhardt’s take, in the rapid school, resulted in a few muddy passages and a couple of muffed brass notes, but all in all it was a solid and enjoyable performance.

Clara Schumann’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in A Minor, Op. 7, under the accomplished fingers of Diane Walsh, was a different beast entirely. In many ways it was reminiscent of Chopin in its minimal orchestration, Romanticism, use of the Polonaise dance form, and virtuoso flourishes, some borrowed from Liszt.

Walsh is known for her interpretations of modern piano works, and her style is brilliant and percussive. Her interpretation of the concerto revealed why Clara Schumann was queen in the arena of virtuosi. It is a showpiece and it wowed the audience at Merrill as it must have those in European capitols.

Compared to most feminist versions of the work, it was downright unladylike. The listeners at Merrill gave it a standing ovation with cheers.

Cheers also greeted Reinhardt’s supremely lyrical and atmospheric reading of Robert Shumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, (Op. 97). The symphony was written to a program, which has been lost, but it follows the path of most musical evocations of rivers from the Rhine to the Moldau. The boat, whose motion is described, encounters water in many forms. Castles on the banks. Happy peasants dancing, a bonfire? And finally a tribute to the Schumanns” new home of Dusseldorf. Or something like that. Best to make up your own.
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.