Tag Archives: Clara Schumann

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.

Brahms and Schumann at the Franco Center

Pianist George Lopez
Franco Center Piano SeriesSept. 28, 2018
by Christopher Hyde

The Franco Center Piano series opened its 13th season with a recital Friday night by George Lopez, Beckwith Artist in Residence at Bowdoin College. HIs program, consisting of early works by Robert and Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, duplicated a performance earlier this week at Studzinski Recital Hall.

Lopez used an electronic score, which projects the notes on a screen in any desired size and eliminates that need for a page turner (if one is not playing from memory, an accomplishment popularized by Franz Liszt). I don’t know why the device is not seen more often; noted Maine pianist Martin Perry uses one, but it is not traditional, and it can be distracting to the audience. Witness a string quartet a while ago that sported four flashing green screens in a darkened room. Lopez’s was more subtle, almost like a paper score on the Steinway’s music stand.

The program began with “Quatre pièces fugitives,” Opus 15 of Clara Schumann—highly Romanic sketches that could have been written by her husband if he were not a genius. They were, however, thoroughly delightful and played lovingly, not as an academic exercise.

The surprising thing about them was their virtuosity, especially in the final Scherzo. They are not for amateurs, male or female. Clara was a famous concert pianist who supported her large family through appearances throughout Europe. The early works in question might have been written as display pieces.

As Lopez pointed out, the young Brahms appeared on the Schumanns’ doorstep with a gigantic fugue just when they were studying that musical form. It was the finale of his Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel (Opus 24) and, although a youthful creation, one of the Romantic period’s towering masterpieces.

Lopez introduced the work with Handel’s original theme plus that composer’s own five variations on it. The contrast in styles highlighted Brahms’ harmonic and rhythmic daring. Although some of the variations seem light years distant from the theme, a recognizable element always remains. The listener never gets lost, at least in Lopez’s interpretation. On the negative side, I would have preferred a slower, more majestic tempo and an emphasis on Brahms’ characteristic bass lines.

The Schumann “Carnaval,” Opus 9, which followed intermission, was also up-tempo, fitting the mercurial nature of the character sketches, all of which were effectively (and brilliantly) portrayed. I have always loved the musical portrait of Chopin, about whom Schumann is said to have exclaimed: Hats off, Gentlemen, a genius.”

Lopez played the “Sphinxes,” A.S.C.H. S.C.H.A., the four notes (in German letters) upon which everything in “Carnaval” is somehow based. They are usually omitted in concert performances, but hearing the sequences helps solve the riddles of at least some of the 21 compositions. The evening ended with a rousing version of the “Marche des Davidsbundler contre les Philistins,” Brahms being one of David’s brotherhood, with Liszt and Wagner as the Philistines.

The next concert in the series will be on Dec. 21, with Diane Walsh. Save the date. This is one not to be missed.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net.