Clara, Robert, and the Piano Concerto



Learning  a new concerto  is always a challenge, and getting back to an old concerto  is even bigger challenge. Working on both at the same time  is certainly a unique experience. Spending now the time with Clara Wieck  and Robert Schumann  piano concertos and digging in both compositions is like sitting and having a conversation with both figures.


 As I dig more into Clara Wieck Schumann's  biography I am astonished by  her amazing personality and her character: such a rare balance between emotion, discipline, efficiency and determination. Clara is  definitely one of the most important figures in music that the history put a little aside.

The biography by Reich is a joy to read and gives the reader a view of the life of an outstanding rare  female artist in the 19th century  - a piano virtuoso and a composer. The book is a fascinating output from her early years as  a prodigy virtuoso to the mature artist , and of course the complicated relationships with the three important masculine figures in her life: her father, Friedrich Wieck, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. She  started to talk only at the age of four (!) and grew up without her mother since the age of five, her  life were full of difficulties and struggle, but also she had very fulfilling career , and  experienced happiness  and wonderful years with her true love.  The difficulty of maintaining a family life (eight children! ) and a career, the challenge to live with and support Robert with his illness and help him achieve his inspiration, and after his death to support and help Johanness - is outrageous by all means. I definitely salute her.


The concertos were composed so apart form each other, but so much connected ,except the interesting fact that they  are both in a minor. Both composers took their inspiration from other virtuoso pieces that were compoesd by pianists: Hummel, Kalkbrenner, Herz, Weber.


Clara started to compose her first drafts of op. 7 when she was only 13(!) in 1832 and already an established virtousa. At that time, Robert was a dear friend and a partner to her studies, and almost like a third brother, and helped her with the orchestration . (his first attempt to write for orchestra). Another dear friend, Felix (Mendelssohn) conducted the performance, and also years later of the performance of Robert's concerto.


Interesting to note that both concertos did not start as a "concerto" plan : Clara composed first the third movement , almost an association of a slavic "polonaise". and after she  added the beautiful romanze (featured only the piano   with a solo cello ) and the first movement. Some scholars consider the first two movements weaker than the third, but for me the fantasy feeling and the freedom of the form , the flexibility and the interesting harmonic transitions are very unique in all the three movements.


When Robert started to compose his concerto, the couple were already happily married  after some difficult years and struggle with Clara's father (a very sad story and heart moving in itself), and set his first movement as a "fantasy for piano and orchestra" but Clara convinced him complete the piece and compose another two movements four years later. Clara premiered the concerto in Dresden under the Baton of Hiller in December 4, 1845 , and in Leipzig under the baton of Mendelssohn, a year later, on the last month of her fourth pregnancy.


There are not so many good recordings of the Clara Wieck's op. 7 but I finally found a wonderful one - Angela Cheng . such a beauty of tone, tenderness and vigor. Cheng definitely found the path to Clara's soul.

Robert Schumann op. 54 has numerous beautiful recordings,  but for me Perahia achieves the inspiration by all means . here is the young Perahia:

and here is the older and mature Perahia: both recording are wonderful.

I must admit that pianistically Clara's concerto op. 7 is not easy to comprehend, and there are some nasty passages in it - almost uncomfortable to the average pianist. Robert's op. 54 has also pianistic challenge by itself, but maybe it is easier to work  on , maybe  because i grew up on the music since childhood, and when you have the music in your ears and fingers , it is more natural for you to comprehend a composition. The fact that I taught op. 54 more than once or twice helped also the learning process. 


I am looking forward for both performances , and hope that maybe one day a student of mine will play the Clara's op. 7 . Back to practice :)


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