Clara & Robert Schumann: Piano Concertos

Beatrice Rana, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Clara & Robert Schumann: Piano Concertos

Husband-and-wife composers Clara and Robert Schumann may have been united in love, but it has taken some time for their music to be programmed together. For more than a century after her death in 1896, concert pianist, composer, and mother to their children Clara was considered a footnote to Robert’s life. Today, however, the balance is being redressed, with Beatrice Rana’s new recording playing a major part in the revival of her First Piano Concerto. “I am now so much into Clara’s Concerto, but I was a bit skeptical for a few years,” admits the Italian pianist. “I knew about her being Robert’s muse and being a great concert pianist; otherwise, I knew nothing. Then, when I was asked to perform it and began to study the score, I realized it was very beautiful and quite revolutionary.” And, she discovered, not recorded by any of the piano greats. “I realized there was so much to do.” Clara composed her Concerto while still a teenager. It grew out of a single-movement work and was premiered by her in a concert conducted by fellow composer Felix Mendelssohn in 1835. Paired on this album with her future husband’s more familiar Concerto, also in A minor, it sounds fresh and instinctive. On first hearing, the young Clara’s musical impetuosity can seem showy and superficial, but with Rana seeking out the work’s depths and with Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s supportive direction, the quality of her ideas is soon revealed and quickly takes root. As Rana explains, “There is this idea of Clara’s Concerto being something polite or pleasant. This is really not the case. It’s an intense work, full of contrasts.” This is also true of Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto, the album’s second work and, like Clara’s, originally a one-movement composition. Premiered in 1845, when Schumann was 35, it’s clearly the work of a mature composer but one who was not above referencing his young wife’s Concerto. Examples include the four-note motif he borrowed from her for the first-movement coda and his use of a slow episode in A-flat to bridge two sections of the same movement. Most striking, though, is the dialogue between cellos and soloist in the second movement, a reminder of Clara’s intimate piano and cello duet in hers, and the way this same movement leads into the finale without interruption. There, however, the similarities end. Robert’s Concerto is a good 10 minutes longer and is considerably more challenging for the pianist, especially in the interaction with the orchestra. “No other piano concerto demands such an intense rapport,” says Rana. “It’s why I was particularly happy to do this recording with Yannick because he’s a musician I feel very close to. For example, I’ve struggled to find conductors who can understand and interpret my ideas about the third movement, one often regarded as just being joyful and happy but which I believe has so much poetry. Fortunately, Yannick can. To have someone who can overcome all of its difficulties so that we can focus on the music was inspirational.” Rana’s ideas about Robert and Clara coalesce in her choice of final work, Liszt’s arrangement of Robert Schumann’s song “Widmung” (“Dedication”). “Knowing the poem that Schumann set his original version to, playing this piece at the end of the recording made so much sense to me,” says Rana. “Rückert’s text expresses everything about Robert and Clara’s relationship, telling of a love so incredible that it brings out in each of them ‘mein bess’res Ich’—my better self.”

Piano Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 7
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Piano Concerto in A Minor, Op. 54
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Widmung, Op. 25 No. 1 (Arr. Liszt, S. 566)
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