Nash Ensemble – German Romantics I: Clara Schumann & Fanny Mendelssohn

Nash Ensemble: Stephanie Gonley (violin), Adrian Brendel (cello), Ian Brown (piano)

Clara Schumann 3 Romances for violin and piano Op.22 (1853)
Mendelssohn Variations Concertantes for cello and piano Op.17 (1829)
Fanny Mendelssohn Piano Trio in D minor Op.11 (1847)

Wigmore Hall, London
Saturday 12 January 2019 (5.30pm)

Review by Ben Hogwood

As part of the Nash Ensemble’s German Romantics season at the Wigmore Hall, it was gratifying indeed to find a concert paying tribute to Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann as composers in their own right rather than simply inspiration for their more frequently performed husbands.

Clara was the muse for Robert Schumann, and even after his death sacrificed her own career as a composer to ensure his music was best heard. Here we heard her last published work, the 3 Romances of 1853, written when Robert was still alive. Using a method of presentation her husband often employed in chamber music, she wrote these three attractive pieces for great violinist Joseph Joachim, with whom Clara gave the first performance in Germany. Stephanie Gonley and Ian Brown gave a thoughtful and rather beautiful account here, Gonley’s tone and phrasing ideally suited to the longer romantic melodies. The first piece was tender and expressive, the second thoughtful but with glimpses of sunshine, and the third a flowing account with an attractive, long-phrased melody.

There followed the Variations concertantes Op.19, the first of several works by Felix Mendelssohn for cello and piano. Written for his younger brother Paul, they are a virtuoso collection of far reaching interpretations of a theme, and were brilliantly played here by Adrian Brendel and Ian Brown, whose eager dialogue caught the energetic approach of the early Mendelssohn. The music moved from affirmative major key to tempestuous minor, but its return was a beautifully realised shift in mood.

We then heard Fanny Mendelssohn’s final published work, a Piano Trio to place alongside – if not even slightly ahead of – the two great works in the form by her brother. With the unison opening from violin and cello, presented above flowing piano figurations, she immediately ensures the audience are held in the drama of a piece that picks you up from the outset and doesn’t let you go.

Gonley, Brendel and Brown were ideal vehicles to present the piece, revelling in the exchanges of the first movement and the warmly romantic themes when the music became more affirmative. The middle two movements, effectively Songs Without Words in the Mendelssohn tradition, were beautifully presented with lyricism and charm, the third becoming distinctly chilly towards its close, leading to a cadenza from Brown to resume the drama in the final movement. The considerable struggles here were played out with thrilling virtuosity, distilling even the most complicated counterpoint before a glorious closing section that swept all before it.

It is to be hoped Clara Schumann’s 200th anniversary year – together with festival’s such as Venus Unwrapped at Kings Place – will raise the profile of women composers, which it has to be said could hardly have been lower in previous years. Concerts such as this help immensely, bringing forward the quality evident from both Clara and Fanny, with the pertinent reminder that neither Schumann nor Mendelssohn – nor indeed Brahms – could have achieved their musical goals without these creative forces.

For more information on the Nash Ensemble and their German Romantics series, visit their website

Further listening

You can listen to the music from both concerts of the latest German Romantics evening on the Spotify playlist below:

Wigmore Mondays – Adrian Brendel and Aleksandar Maksar

brendel-madzar

Adrian Brendel (cello), Aleksandar Maksar (piano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 7 December 2015

Listening link (open in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06r5dhh

on the iPlayer until 6 January 2016

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, here is a Spotify playlist of some of the music in this concert. The Birtwistle is not on Spotify, and Adrian Brendel has not yet recorded either of the Debussy or Chopin Cello Sonatas, so alternative versions have been chosen:

What’s the music?

Debussy: Cello Sonata in D minor (1915) (11 minutes)

Birtwistle: Variations for cello and piano (2007) (6 minutes)

Chopin: Cello Sonata in G minor (1846) (31 minutes)

Every piece of music that Chopin published features the piano in some way. Most of his output is for piano solo but there are a couple of exceptions – two piano concertos and some works for piano and orchestra, the Polish Songs, the Piano Trio and this, Chopin’s only Cello Sonata.

It is a substantial piece, written late on in its composer’s career, and has a curious structure of four movements where the first is as long as the other three put together. It is a substantial piece of work, deeply felt in the slower music especially, but is also restless, the cello and piano playing closely together in melodies of unusual rhythm and contour. Chopin achieves the difficult task of honing his instincts for the piano to play as a solo instrument, balancing the two forces extremely well.

Debussy’s Cello Sonata is much shorter, a third of the length of the Chopin, but is equally concentrated in feeling. The work was to be the first in a series of six sonatas for different instrumental combinations from the composer, but sadly ill health determined he would not be able to get any further than three (the others are for violin and piano, and flute, viola and harp). The Cello Sonata is a sultry piece, particularly in the second movement Sérénade, which features plucking on the cello.

Bisecting these is one of Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s several pieces for cello and piano. The Variations are very closely linked to the Brendel family, and although they were commissioned by Adrian they take as their theme a piece written by Birtwistle for father Alfred. The theme is taken from another piece for the same combination, the Lied, and Birtwistle complemented that with this piece and several more to make a continuous sequence for cello, baritone and piano lasting just over half an hour.

Performance verdict

Adrian Brendel and Aleksandar Madzar gave highly accomplished performances of these three works, the result an extremely satisfying concert of contrasting musical language. The Debussy is a perennial favourite but sounded very fresh here, Brendel enjoying the almost complete freedom of the improvised second movement.

The Birtwistle, a gritty, concentrated piece, was very well done also, with characterisation of each of the short variations and some really vivid shades of colour from Brendel in particular.

The Chopin exploited the cellist’s singing tone beautifully, especially in the soaring second theme of the second movement. The duo stressed the uncertainty of much of this piece, and in particular the sizeable first movement, which here seemed to have just as many intriguing questions as it had answers. Brendel took everything in his stride technically, and the rapport and ensemble between the two performers – Madzar employing plenty of light and shade with the piano – was a real asset throughout.

What should I listen out for?

Debussy

2:04 – the first movement, a Prologue, begins with an opening statement from the piano, before the cello comes in expansively. The mood evokes to me a late summer evening. Debussy impresses with his economical use of form here, packing a lot of musical incident into a short movement before it finishing thoughtfully.

6:29 – the Sérénade is a nocturnal movement, and sounds like an improvisation, the plucked cello leading the piano in a stuttering series of musical gestures, showing off a more obvious Spanish influence. Gradually Debussy brings both instruments into line, and the cello uses the bow a lot more, building the tension and moving straight into…

9:50… the Finale, which starts with urgent piano and soaring cello before a vivacious theme makes itself known from the cello (10:08). This becomes the main focus of the movement, though the sultry mood of the Sérénade is not entirely forgotten.

Birtwistle

15:27 – the piece begins with a mysterious sound world on show, the cello playing two notes at once and the piano sounding very uncertain. The variations unfold in wildly differing moods, and without following the score it is relatively difficult to say where one ends and the next begins. After a tense beginning the piano stabs out two penetrating notes and then the music becomes faster – though the performers seem much more at odds. The end, when it comes, is slight.

Chopin

23:28 – the very substantial first movement (16 minutes) starts on the piano, with a solemn introduction. It doesn’t take long for Chopin to show off the pianist’s technique, but he is careful not to write a part that impinges on the cello once it appears with the theme. After a slow start the pace picks up a little, the mood intensifying – until Chopin works around to a repeat of the whole first section (from 28:42)

39:54 – a short scherzo that flits about without seeming to settle. The instruments are very closely linked in their musical discussion, both sharing the distinctive rhythm that Chopin gives to the main theme. The second theme () has a soaring quality very unusual to Chopin (in that he wrote so many melodies for the piano) and it has a penetrating beauty in this concert.

45:10 – a soft but warm-hearted slow movement, with a songful melody first aired on the cello but then repeated on piano. This is a surprisingly short movement, profound but giving the sonata a slightly lopsided form.

48:40 – the finale takes us back to the sonata’s ‘home’ key of G minor and finds an impressive urgency, with cello and piano working very closely together. Chopin employs a number of extremely catchy hooks but the form is relatively compressed…and soon the music moves into the major key and a thoroughly affirmative finish at 54:30.

Further listening

The Spotify playlist containing the music for this concert has been enhanced to include Chopin’s other large-scale chamber work, the Piano Trio. After this you can enjoy some music for cello and piano by a composer best known for his piano music, Franz Liszt – and played by the great Hungarian cellist Miklós Perényi: