Released December 3, 2021
Composers: Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms
Performers: Alexander Shelley, National Arts Centre Orchestra, Liz Upchurch, Adrianne Pieczonka
Album of the Weekend — Classic FM
"An unexpected delight, absolutely lovely, wonderful recording." — BBC Radio
“Prises à bras-le-corps, les finales des deux symphonies sont de véritables fêtes où brillent les musiciens du CNA. Chantés par la soprano Adrianne Pieczonka (avec Liz Upchurch au piano), les magnifiques lieder de Clara Schumann bénéficient d’une diction claire et d’un engagement émotionnel palpable de la chanteuse canadienne.” — ★ ★ ★ ★ La Presse
This is the second of four albums 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’s symphonies are paired and combined with Clara Schumann’s chamber works and orchestral pieces, including some special gems.
I have always loved these symphonies and seen many links between them. It has 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
The connections among Johannes Brahms and Robert and Clara Schumann were far-reaching, profound, and historic. It was Robert who discovered the 20-year-old Brahms and proclaimed him to the world as the heir of Beethoven. It was Brahms who, when Schumann, after attempting suicide, was committed to an asylum from which he never emerged, moved into the Schumann house to console Clara and fell passionately in love with her. How all that turmoil played out in the next years—Brahms marked for life by Robert’s prophecy, finally distancing himself from Clara though she remained the love of his life—is one of the most significant and compelling stories in music of the 19th century.
Robert Schumann first arrived as a miniaturist, writing piano music and songs of singular imagination and originality. When he turned to larger works, including symphonies, Schumann, like his protégé Brahms, was excruciatingly aware that he was treading on Beethoven’s turf. His response was to find a symphonic voice that did not aim for Beethovenian monumentality but instead for music that took more intimate, driving, and often festive directions. Meanwhile, he was afflicted throughout his adulthood by severe manic depression, the lows devastating and the highs blazingly creative.
All this can be seen in his Symphony No. 2, Op. 61. The initial draft was written in less than a week of December 1845, in the wake of one of his psychotic episodes. After months of orchestration work, it was premiered in Leipzig under Felix Mendelssohn’s baton in November 1846. The premiere did not go well, but in a second performance, after Schumann further refined the orchestration, audiences warmed to it.
This is Schumann’s symphonic voice, fresh and innovative. The second symphony begins with a gentle call in the trumpets that becomes a leitmotif through the work. He was a pioneer of what came to be called “cyclic” works, in which themes reappear throughout movements. The trumpet motif is one of these, but several other ideas link the movements, including many echoes of the chromatic string line that meanders under the opening trumpet call. The slow opening resolves into an allegro of relentless driving intensity, marked by chattering dotted rhythms.
Next is a manically dashing scherzo with two contrasting trios, the second one a stretch of lyrical calm in another relentless excursion. The slow movement is the glory of the symphony and one of the glories of all Romantic orchestral music: a slowly unfolding, intimate, and songful movement that builds to breathtaking climaxes on high string trills. The finale amounts to a grand stretch of gaiety that sweeps away the troubles of the previous movements. At the end, the trumpet motif returns in trumph.
Brahm’s response to the looming presence of Beethoven was to spend over 15 years labouring at his Symphony No. 1 with deep-rooted anxiety. A towering, serious work, it had a mixed reception at first, though it ultimately went a long way to reviving the stagnating symphonic tradition. Freed of the worst of his fears, Brahms finished the entire Symphony No. 2, Op. 73, in the summer of 1877. He often chose his landscapes to help inspire the music he wanted to write, and for this piece he went to the delightful town of Pörtschach, where he reported “the melodies lie so thick here that you have to avoid stepping on them.”
Symphony No. 2 begins with a graceful waltzlike theme (the opening three-note bass figure serves as the melodic germ of the whole symphony) that foreshadows a sunny pastoral outing. But there is an undercurrent to that warmth, first appearing like a dark cloud in ominous trombone chords. The idyllic beauty of the opening is further compromised by a nervous, rhythmically unsettled development section. One writer aptly called the central image of the second symphony “a lost idyll.”
Beauty, joy, loss, regret: these are the contending forces in this symphony. The typically Brahmsian sense of a past forever out of reach comes to the fore in the lovely and expansive second movement, which begins with one of his achingly poignant cello themes. The sorrows of the piece begin to recede with a lilting and gracious third movement. Then comes a finale of expansive lyricism and full-throated pleasure. It ends with trombones, harbingers of sorrow in the first movement, giving out a blazing D major chord that proclaims, for the time being, the victory of joy.
— JAN SWAFFORD
Clara Schumann’s 28 extant songs—many more are lost—occupy a central place in her compositional output. The 12 lieder included here resonate with the themes of love, nature, and “night music” evoked by Robert and Johannes in their second symphonies—Robert quoting Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte and Johannes referencing his own songs “Es liebt sich so lieblich” and “Wiegenlied”. Clara’s lieder are also representative of her rich songwriting palette, with its characteristic long-breathed lyricism, intimate partnership of piano and voice, and gift for magnifying poetic nuances musically.
In “Er ist gekommen” (1841), for instance, her celebrated virtuosity translates into an urgent piano part that channels the protagonist’s tempestuous feelings. Equally expressive but much tauter, “Sie liebten sich beide” (1842) grinds to a quasi-halt at its centre point to represent the heart-death of two lovers who never confess their feelings to each other.
Other songs depict nocturnal scenes of the kind so dear to the Romantic imagination. For instance, in “Die gute Nacht” (1841), Clara’s expanded musical phrases evoke the power of song to reach across vast spans of time and space, while in “Die stille Lotosblume” (1843), heightened chromaticism and an open-ended form capture the swan’s unheeded serenade to the lotus blossom.
Taken together, these 12 lieder provide a revealing window into Clara Schumann’s kaleidoscopic handling of piano, voice, and verse.
— JULIE PEDNEAULT-DESLAURIERS
How is it possible that, during my career spanning over 30 years, I never sang a Clara Schumann lied? Imagine my delight when Alexander Shelley invited me to collaborate with Liz Upchurch on this project, as part of the NAC Orchestra’s recording project. I was thrilled at the prospect of delving into Clara’s lieder, and it offered me a wonderful focus during the ongoing pandemic.
I immediately fell in love with these songs and will continue to perform them in recital in the future. Perhaps this recording will act as an introduction for some listeners to Clara’s poetic and elegant settings of poetry by the likes of Heine, Rückert, and Burns.
Clara was known foremost as a concert pianist—indeed, she was a child prodigy who toured Europe at a young age, impressing Liszt, Chopin, and Paganini with her amazing performances. Her marriage to Robert Schumann brought a shift—she was no longer as free to perform or compose due to her familial duties. Robert wrote in his diary, “Clara has composed a series of small pieces, which show a musical and tender ingenuity such as she has never attained before. But to have children, and a husband who is always living in the realm of imagination, does not go together with composing. She cannot work at it regularly, and I am often disturbed to think how many profound ideas are lost because she cannot work them out.”
Despite this challenging situation, Clara did find the time to write many piano works and songs. I get the feeling that some of these lieder were written in haste—perhaps during nap time or during the wee hours of the morning, when the household was asleep. Many of her shorter lieder have a tender, feminine touch, but there are others with more bravura, featuring stormy accompaniments and intricate postludes.
Clara’s lieder were largely forgotten after her death, but the 1970s saw a resurgence of interest in her oeuvre, which thankfully continues today. Clara Schumann’s image was featured on the 100 Deutsche Mark note from 1989 until 2022, when the Euro was established. On the reverse side of the bank note is the image of her beloved grand piano.
— ADRIANNE PIECZONKA