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Romance - The Piano Music of Clara Schumann
Clara SCHUMANN (1819-1896)

Piano Concerto in A minor Op 7 (c.1831) [21:17]
3 Romances for piano Op 11 (1839) [13:44]
Scherzo No 2 in C minor Op 14 (1845) [4:52]
3 Romances for violin and piano Op 22 (1852-53) [10:09]
Widmung [2:14]
Mondnacht [3:51]
Piano Sonata in G minor [20:10]
Isata Kanneh-Mason (piano)
Elena Urioste (violin)
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Holly Mathieson
rec. 18-20 February 2019, Saffron Waldon Concert Hall (Opp 14 & 22, Sonata) and 15 & 16 April 2019, The Friary, Liverpool (Opp 7 & 11, Widmung, Mondnacht)
DECCA 485 0020 [76:19]

The date for this recording coincided with Clara Schumann’s bicentenary, and this CD is a rich celebration of “this 19th century superwoman”, who was a prodigy at the keyboard and one of the most significant pianists of her era. She is of course largely remembered as the wife of Robert Schumann, but the amount of music she composed can come as something of a surprise, as well as how little of it has become widely known today.

Work on the Piano Concerto was started when Clara was only 13, and she gave the first performance at the age of 16. On a blind hearing you would not guess this, the technical demands of the solo part and the confident assurance behind the actual music both pointing towards a composer of seasoned maturity. The work isn’t quite as memorable as Robert Schumann’s Concerto in A minor, but it is full of lively ideas, and the piano solo being joined by a solo cello in the central Romance is a very nice touch indeed, arguably serving as a model for Brahms in his Second Piano Concerto. This is one of Clara Schumann’s works that has been recorded a few times. Francesco Nicolosi on the Naxos label is decent enough, though a bit rough around the edges here and there in terms of the orchestral playing (review). Veronica Jochum and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra on the Tudor label (review) gives a more well-rounded and assured impression. Recorded sound for the RLPO is drier, and the heft of the piano in relationship to the orchestra might have been a bit more nuanced, but this is a good performance, if not quite as lyrically elegant as Jochum’s.

That Tudor CD also has the 3 Romances for violin and piano Op 22, with Joseph Silverstein’s tight vibrato taking us back in time to someone like Joseph Szigeti. Elena Urioste has plenty of control as well but is also more heart-on-sleeve, with occasional swoops adding to the expressive colours of her playing. This is a lovely set of pieces, and was one of Clara Schumann’s last works before falling more or less silent as a composer after Robert’s death. The 3 Romances Op 11 were written just before their marriage, Robert publishing the second as a supplement to his Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. Opp 11 and 22 compliment each other very nicely, separated by the fiery Scherzo No 2 and a slight leap in recorded perspective due to the change in venues. Franz Liszt’s transcription of Robert Schumann’s song Widmung is well-known, but Isata Kanneh-Mason declares a preference for Clara’s version, “as it keeps the song’s simplicity in its purest form.” This and Clara’s delicious transcription of Mondnacht represent the significance of her marriage to Robert in this programme.
The Piano Sonata in G minor is a substantial work that, for some reason, Robert advised against publishing after Clara had composed it as a gift to him. As a result it wasn’t published in its complete form until the 1990s. There are little touches of Brahms here and there, but Clara’s more transparent voice gives a light touch to even the weightier themes. This is indeed a wonderful piece, but I was only able to find a couple of alternatives: that with Domenico Codispoti on the Piano Classics label, and Daniel Levy’s frustratingly quirky reading on Edelweiss Emission. I love Kanneh-Mason’s touch in the Adagio second movement, and her performance is very satisfying all round.

As a move towards establishing Clara Schumann as a more central figure in 19th century music this is a significant calling card. The piano sound could perhaps have been a little brighter in the solo pieces, and if you turn up the volume then the middle register seems to thicken rather than enhancing the clarity. This is a minor point however, and one that may only be noticed by late night headphone users such as myself. Isata Kanneh-Mason is a fine musician, and I applaud her choice in recording this less well-trodden repertoire.

Dominy Clements



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