A composer (re)discovered

Clara Schumann is mostly known as Robert Schumann’s wife and the love interest of Johannes Brahms, which is terribly unfair considering she was one of the most brilliant musicians of the 19th century, a brilliant concert pianist and a talented composer, who unfortunately put an end to her career as a composer, declaring : « I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose—there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one? ». This year marks the 200th anniversary of her birth, which has been the occasion to rediscover the compositions of Clara Schumann, even though most recordings released this year still placed Schumann in the shadow of male composers. So it’s really a relief to see the release of a well-wrought album entirely devoted to her works.

This debut album by the brilliant young pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason is a beautiful tribute to the work of Clara Schumann. It includes her piano concerto, as well as several piano works and the Three Romances for Violin and Piano, and it shows the development of Clara Schumann as a composer. She was a child prodigy, who was taught the piano, violin, singing, theory, harmony, composition and counterpoint by her father, Friedrich Wieck, a well-known German piano teacher. She was only 13 when she began working on her piano concerto, which she premiered at the age of 16 accompanied by the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra and Felix Mendelssohn. What is remarkable is that at that time she was already very famous as a pianist all over Europe. Her piano concerto is a typically Romantic concerto, full of fire, energy, and virtuoso pages. I’m not going to lie and pretend that the work itself is a great work of music, after all Schumann was still a very young and inexperienced composer when she wrote this concerto, and was helped for the orchestration by her future husband Robert Schumann, but it is very pleasant to listen to. Of course, listening to this album is made all the more enjoyable thanks to the sensitive and thoughtful performance of Isata Kanneh-Mason, who plays not only with great virtuosity, but also with much feeling, and is superbly accompanied by the always wonderful Royal Liverpool Philharmonic orchestra and by the very talented young conductor, Holly Mathieson. The times are changing even in the slow-to-change world of classical music, which is the bastion of male domination, and it’s a welcome change to see a major music label releasing a recording of music written by a woman, performed by a woman solist and conducted by a woman conductor. It’s overall a very sharp and forceful performance, as Anthony Hodgson pointed out in Classical Source, that eschews any temptation of playing Clara Schumann’s music softly and lightly for the only reason she was a woman. Kanneh-Mason’s performance, which at first might sound a little brutal in the opening bars of the concerto, paints the portrait of the composer as a strong and assertive young woman who wanted to take her rightful place in the world of classical music.

In the booklet presentation of the recording, Isata Kanneh-Mason explains that she chose the three piano Romances op. 11 to complement the later violin Romances. These are light, pleasing and passionate piano works written while Schumann was on tour as a concert pianist in 1839, at a time when she was fighting against her father to get the permission of marrying Robert Schumann. The three Romances for piano and violin are a more complex and harmonically richer work, composed for the star violinist Joseph Joachim in 1853. They are beautifully played by Kanneh-Mason and violinist Elena Urioste, who is another revelation of this album, thanks to her capacity to make her instrument sing.

Although Clara Schumann’s piano sonata in G minor was composed in 1841-2, it was never performed in her lifetime and it was rediscovered in 1991, after being long neglected. At first Schuman had composed a sonatine in 1941, with the Allegro in G minor and the Scherzo in G minor, which were intended as a Christmas gift for her husband, but she then decided to complete it with an Adagio in E flat major and a Rondo final in G minor in 1842. While listening to this lovely sonata, one can only wonder how far Clara Schumann would have gone if she had had the self-confidence to believe in her calling as a composer and if she had been less troubled by the duties of a wife and mother and been able to focus more on music composition. But unfortunately, we’ll never know. What this album shows is how promising she was as a composer and that she possessed a real creative talent, as well as a solid compositional technique. Clara Schumann was a woman of her time, one who although highly talented still thought that a woman’s place was not at the forefront of musical creation.

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