Released May 8, 2020
Composers: Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms
Performers: Alexander Shelley, National Arts Centre Orchestra, Gabriela Montero
“The big news here is the terrific playing of Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra. The strings, polished during Pinchas Zukerman’s 16 year tenure as music director, sound even more impressive under Alexander Shelley...” Gramophone Magazine
This album is the first of four in a recording cycle that explores the closely intertwined personal and artistic connections between three musical giants: Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Robert Schumann’s and Johannes Brahms’ symphonies will be paired and combined with Clara Schumann’s chamber works and orchestral pieces, including some special gems.
“I have always loved these symphonies and saw many links between them. It’s always been my dream to record them and release them together. No story of these two composers is complete without Clara, as famous in her lifetime as her husband, and a strong influence on both Robert and Johannes. We crafted this vision with Clara Schumann scholar Julie Pedneault-Deslauriers, to combine the symphonies with pieces by Clara in ways that provide an insightful narrative to the intertwined lives and works of these three Romantics.” Alexander Shelley
“Shelley wields a taut baton, presenting textures that are slender yet not too wispy, filled with spirited rhythms but sensibly measured tempos.” BBC Music
With their first symphonies, both Schumann and Brahms signaled to the musical world that they were entering the scene over which Beethoven still towered: their works are both heavy with historical consciousness and composed for posterity. Though Clara Schumann wrote no symphonies, she nevertheless produced a few large-scale works in the “serious” genres that were deemed essential to achieve the status of professional composer. As such, this recording includes her Piano Concerto, Op. 7, her first (and last) multi-movement orchestral work. In homage to Clara Schumann’s famed improvisation skills – she improvised to warm up as well as to link consecutive works during her concerts – Gabriela Montero offers original improvisations inspired by Clara’s music. In these albums, all three composers breathe romantic technique and élan into classical genres.
Clara, Robert, Johannes: these names merge the stories of three wonderfully gifted musicians who not only achieved resounding success individually, but also whose artistic trajectories gained extraordinary heights for having met and creatively resonated.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was a mere 20-year-old when he knocked on the Schumanns’ door in Düsseldorf in 1853, scores in hand: a budding composer hoping to impress a seasoned colleague at the vanguard of the Romantic movement. As the story goes, Robert had barely listened to the opening of Brahms’ first piano sonata before he rushed to fetch Clara so that she, too, could hear the “darling of the Muses,” as he would soon call Johannes. Then and there, around a piano, began an intense and profound friendship that was to sustain each of them until the end of their respective lives.
Of the three, Clara Schumann (née Wieck, 1819-1896) had been the first to attain international fame. By the time she married Robert in 1840, she was already one of Europe’s leading virtuoso pianists. Over the course of a 60-year-long concertizing and teaching career, Clara Schumann markedly reshaped contemporary concert culture, performing what were considered ‘difficult’ works by Bach and Beethoven as well as championing the music of the Romantics, above all that of her husband.
But Clara was also a remarkable composer, endowed with both vivid poetic imagination and solid technical craftsmanship. Her works – mainly for solo piano and lieder, with a few incursions into chamber and orchestral writing–evince poignant lyricism, colourful harmony and pianistic prowess. Composing was an important part of Clara’s life from her childhood until the death of her husband in 1856. Unfortunately – though she did not know it when Brahms entered the Schumanns’ lives in 1853–the impending tragedy about to strike her family would also prematurely curtail her composing career.
When the Schumanns met Brahms, Robert Schumann (1810-1856) had already composed most of his masterworks, including several cycles of lieder and piano pieces of breathtaking poetry and inspiration, as well as his four strikingly original symphonies. It was the sheer innovation and imagination of Robert’s music that had attracted Brahms to Düsseldorf. Robert, in turn, was so struck by Johannes’s creative genius that he soon published an effusive article titled “New Paths,” which heralded Brahms as nothing less than a new musical saviour. The Schumanns generously took Brahms under their wings and introduced him into their large artistic circle.
Later that year, Robert Schumann became a very sick man, whose illness led only a few months later to a suicide attempt and to his subsequent internment at the Endenich asylum, where he died in 1856. The intervening years significantly transformed the relationship between Clara and Johannes. Their initial friendship, borne out of the Schumanns’ patronage, evolved into a powerful, life-binding connection. Johannes proved a selfless ally to Clara during Robert’s internment, staying in Düsseldorf, taking over sundry aspects of the household management and helping with the care of the Schumann children. He also visited Robert at the asylum, and the latter requested that Johannes send him his music to play and analyze. The extant correspondence between Johannes and Clara during that period leaves no doubt about the depth of the affection that grew between them, though the exact nature and extent of that affection are still topics of speculation. After Robert’s death, however, the two seemed to reach some point of no return and chose to part ways to pursue their individual careers but their heartfelt friendship continued, fuelled both by personal attachment and professional collaboration, and enfolding Robert’s memory and music within it. Thus Clara consulted with Johannes when she directed the complete edition of Robert’s works, while Johannes frequently showed her his manuscripts and attended her concerts. They died less than a year apart.
The tangled web of personal and artistic ties that bound this extraordinary trio of musicians continues to fascinate to this day. The Schumanns were artistic colleagues whose ongoing conversations about music spilled into their works: their music sounds an endless dance of references and allusions to one another’s compositions, a dance which Brahms also entered. After Robert’s death, Clara continued with renewed determination to promote her husband’s oeuvre through her concerts. She also fostered Johannes’s career, premiering ten of his works, lobbying with publishers on his behalf, and offering sound professional advice. Both Robert and Johannes’s reputations grew overtime and eventually overshadowed hers; only in the past few decades has her important role in the Romantic era begun to be re-evaluated. The three musicians met at a pivotal juncture of their careers: Robert at its twilight and Johannes at its dawn, while Clara was the steady sun – or perhaps the star – who lit both their ways but who today is also increasingly valued for her own light.