Alexander Shelley and the NAC Orchestra are in the midst of programming, performing and recording all the symphonies by Johannes Brahms and Robert Schumann, and threading them together with work by the equally brilliant Clara Schumann.
The first of this four-album project with the Montreal label Analekta, will be released on May 8.
For this Home Delivery, we’re offering a special advance of this new album “Clara - Robert - Johannes: Darlings of the Muses”, featuring the remarkable Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero.
In addition to selected movements from both of Johannes’ and Robert’s First Symphonies, there is also a movement of Clara’s Piano Concerto and two of Gabriela’s own improvisations on themes by Clara Schumann.
Gabriela added Clara’s Concerto to her own repertoire especially for this album, and she brought wonder and reverence to this music, which Clara began writing when she was only 14.
As a bonus, we’ve included a movement from Clara’s Romances for Violin and Piano, performed by our Concertmaster Yosuke Kawasaki and Ottawa’s own pianist, Angela Hewitt.
Clara, Robert and Johannes. A triumvirate of sparklingly sensitive, generously perceptive, strong and deeply romantic souls that admiringly supported and loved one another. Three names, three geniuses intertwined in life as they are in legacy.
As we tomorrow celebrate what would have been Johannes Brahms’s 187th birthday, I am delighted to present to you excerpts from our latest recording, the first in a major new cycle of double-albums, which will be released this Friday, May 8th.
This cycle will present fresh interpretations of the complete symphonies of Robert Schumann and his beloved protégé Johannes Brahms, glued together by concerto, chamber and vocal works of their closest musical confidante and most trusted friend, Clara Schumann (née Wieck).
Although all three of these composers were also concert pianists, it was Clara who was the stand-out as a performing artist. In 1828, when her future husband, an 18-year-old Robert Schumann, came to study with her renowned piano-teaching father, the merely 9-year-old Clara had already been moulded into a virtuoso of note. In the coming decades, she would tour Europe as one of its most celebrated and respected keyboard artists, a champion both of the classics and of her contemporaries, including the music of both Robert, and the much younger Johannes Brahms. It was Clara who, alongside her career and eight children, would be an essential emotional and financial support to her brilliant but troubled husband.
It was in these earliest years of her life that Clara composed her Piano Concerto. Begun when she was 13 years old with a single-standing ‘Konzertsatz’ that would later constitute the Finale of the piece (and which you hear in this Home Delivery), she added two further movements to complete the work within two years. She herself was the soloist with the Gewandhaus Orchestra at the 1835 premiere in her home town of Leipzig, conducted by Felix Mendelssohn no less. At once youthful and accomplished, traditional yet daring, it is a testament to her sparkling genius.
Following a prolonged and acrimonious legal battle with her father, who was firmly against the union, Clara and Robert married on September 12th 1840 (a day before her 21st birthday, at which point they could have married without parental consent). Amidst this turmoil Robert burst forth with an almost unprecedented flow of creativity, producing, in this ‘year of song’, no less than 138 works in the genre. At Clara’s urging, and with her support, by early 1841, he had conceived and completed his First Symphony. The influence of that year of song is unmistakeable - the Larghetto 2nd movement, also offered in this Home Delivery, consists of an almost unbroken lyrical line passed from violins to woodwinds and back.
The Schumanns’ life was one of music and art and family. They were passionately engaged in the roaring debate around the future of classical music, represented by two emerging schools: that of the progressive composers (Liszt chief among them) who were advocates of programmatic, descriptive music; and that of the traditionalists of ‘absolute music’, epitomised by the symphony, of which they were both adherents and leading figures.
Just as Robert had knocked on her father’s door in 1828, Johannes Brahms appeared similarly in Clara’s life 25 years later, presenting himself at the Schumanns’ Düsseldorf doorstep in 1853 with a letter of recommendation from the esteemed violinist Joseph Joachim. Robert was immediately taken by the talents of the remarkable 20-year-old from Hamburg and became a fervent advocate, enabling the publication of Johannes’s first works.
Only a year later, Robert would attempt suicide and was committed to an institution. Brahms remained with Clara, living in her household. Their mutual infatuation is documented and undeniable and they would remain the closest of friends until Clara’s death; yet the extent and nature of their love for one another remains one of the great mysteries of music. It is from this year of 1854 that we have the initial sketches of a work that would take a further two decades to come to fruition: Johannes’s First Symphony.
The shadow of Beethoven was so long and so strong that both Robert and Johannes spent much time and energy grappling with the question of how to pick up his symphonic mantle. The result of Johannes’s labour was a blisteringly powerful First Symphony, the equal of any before or since, which culminates, during its fourth movement, in one of the most unforgettably glowing themes in all of music. It was premiered in 1876, 20 years after Robert’s death of pneumonia in an asylum near Bonn.
The searing intensity that opens this first movement presents Beethoven’s inheritance (the insistent, driven beat of the timpani, low strings and woodwinds) enveloped into a typically Brahmsian texture of densely packed lyrical voices, at once both melodic and harmonic in function. In the mould of Beethoven’s structural and intellectual rigour, we discover that these lines in the upper strings and higher woodwinds are carefully calibrated mirrors of one another, moving in retrograde as the music unfurls. Indeed they are stretched out, subtly disguised quotations of an idea, a theme, which permeates each and every movement of the work.
In our recording, I explore a fundamental tempo relation question at this very opening of the symphony. Brahms composed the introduction after having already completed the rest of the movement and (not a believer in metronome marks) left us with a tantalisingly equivocal tempo indication: ‘un poco sostenuto’ or ‘somewhat sustained’. Over the centuries, this has been interpreted in many ways, predominately as slow, with grandeur and austerity. For many reasons I am pulled towards an alternative interpretation, viewing this opening as a truly only 'somewhat sustained’ iteration and premonition of the uneasy, agitated music that forms the bulk of the movement: that is, we are thrown directly into the tumult, the tempo is more driven, unrelenting, the hand of fate has been dealt. In this tempo, I relish the Schumann-esque lines in the woodwinds, their cohesion, less distended yet more yearningly human in their lyricism.
In this Home Delivery I wish to give you a flavour of the philosophy that has driven this cycle. We have put together three movements from the upcoming album - one from each of the protagonists - as well as a special bonus track featuring our brilliant Concertmaster Yosuke Kawasaki alongside the Canadian star pianist Angela Hewitt from a later release.
As was then the custom, Clara, Robert and Johannes were fluent in the art of improvisation, a deep well of inspiration on which they would draw for their more formal compositions. As such, I can think of no more perfect artistic partner for this album than Gabriela Montero, the uniquely gifted piano virtuoso, improvisor and composer. Alongside her interpretations of Clara’s music, Gabriela gifts us a unique set of improvisations in the spirit of Clara Schumann, recorded in a flow of inspiration in Southam Hall. These improvisation knit together the surrounding works, much as Clara would have extemporised in concert herself.
My wish is that through the lens of this cycle you will find renewed appreciation of the shared musical sentiment and soul that united these three great artists. That Gabriela’s improvisations will help you to relate to the spontaneous nature of their creative impulses and to the living, breathing inspiration that they found in one another. That the songs and the chamber music will give intimate context to their symphonic statements. That this exploration of their friendship, their love and their connection with the romantic spirit will resonate across the centuries and move your heart as surely as they moved each other’s. They truly were the Darlings of the Muses.