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: Céline Moinet & Florian Uhlig – Schumann Romances for oboe and piano

Céline Moinet (oboe, above – picture Francois Sechet), Florian Uhlig (piano, below)

Schumann 3 Romances Op.94 (1849)
Nielsen 2 Fantasy Pieces Op.2 (1889)
Clara Schumann 3 Romances Op.22 (1853)
Robert Schumann 12 vierhändige Clavierstücke für kleine und grosse Kinder Op.85/12 – Abendlied (1849)
Pasculli Concerto on ‘La Favorita’ by Donizetti ()

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 4 December 2017

Written by Ben Hogwood

The broadcast can be heard on the BBC iPlayer by clicking here

Robert Schumann was a composer equally at home in short musical forms as he was in longer constructions – but it seems his most intimate thoughts can be found in the shorter pieces, either his songs or his chamber music. Schumann’s lyrical style of writing means that pieces like the 3 Romances, written for Clara as a gift, transfer effortlessly between treble instruments such as the violin, clarinet or horn. These three, however, work best on the oboe, its tone perfectly suited to the reflective and slightly mournful outer pieces.

The two Nielsen pieces are early works, written by the composer shortly after his graduation from the Copenhagen conservatoire – a Romance and an Intermezzo in the form of a Humoreske.

Returning to Schumann, we hear an arrangement of a piano piece for children, and then three Romances by Schumann’s wife Clara. These were originally written for the violinist Joseph Joachim, but like her husband’s music they transcribe for oboe and piano with ease.

Finally a piece by Antonio Pasculli, regarded as the best oboist of his time – and one who enjoyed arranging operatic themes for the oboe in highly virtuosic pieces with piano accompaniment.

Follow the music

The times used relate to the broadcast link above.

Schumann 3 Romances Op.94 (1:34) (12 minutes)

The first piece (1:34) is lyrical but slightly downcast in its musical though, a time for reflection. The mood becomes more upward looking for the second piece (4:55), Schumann switching towards the major key for a gentle tune that he contrasts with an energetic central section (from 6:04). The third piece (8:54) begins with the bare bones of a melody, played by the oboe and piano together, with darker shades to the texture and harmony that never fully leave the music.

Nielsen 2 Fantasy Pieces Op. 2 (from 15:13) (6 minutes)

Nielsen gives the oboe a sweet melody for the first fantasy piece, a Romance (15:13) but characteristically alters the harmonic setting to throw it just a little out of kilter.

For the Intermezzo – a Humoreske – from 18:32, an impish and slightly mischievous approach makes for a charming piece, especially when the harmony moves into the major key.

Clara Schumann 3 Romances Op.22 (from 22:36) (10 minutes)

The first Romance is a genial piece that goes on to test the oboist’s control of the upper register. There is fluid interplay between the oboe and piano before the piece softens at the close. From 25:34 the second piece moves into a minor key, and once again a darker outlook. The third Romance, from 28:22, is the most expansive of the three, with flowing piano and a long legato oboe line, before Clara introduces a more playful aspect to the oboe’s lines.

Schumann Abendlied Op.85/12 (from 32:56) (2 minutes)

A short but sweet lullaby from Schumann’s Music for Children (Large and Small!), Abendlied (An Evening Song) is beautifully played.

Pasculli Concerto on La Favorita by Donizetti (36:44) (12 minutes)

A carefully considered piano introduction sets the scene, in the spirit of the best concertos, with the oboe following 40 seconds later. The slower introduction includes some extremely tricky passagework for the oboe, but also some broader melodies from Donizetti’s opera. Then after a cadenza from the oboe, the pace quickens (41:45) in a march. Now the oboe line is incredibly demanding, twisting and turning in rapid figurations in what feels like a thorough test of stamina rather than anything more musically meaningful!

Thoughts on the concert

This was quite a short recital for the Wigmore Hall lunchtime, but was beautifully played by Céline Moinet, who showed off technical prowess but more than anything a keen ear for and aptitude with the music. She inhabited Schumann’s world easily, finding the thoughtful intimacy that he pours into his shorter works, not to mention the darker side they inevitably hint at.

For the Pasculli she was really able to cast off the shadows, but here Florian Uhlig’s virtuosity and prompting were just as important, the pianist mastering some tricky runs in response to Moinet’s ever greater athletic feats. That she managed to bring across Donizetti’s operatic melodies was no mean feat, and the end was thrilling in its bravura.

Further listening and reading

You can listen to Céline Moinet and Florian Uhlig in their new album Schumann Romances, available here on Spotify:

Meanwhile Moinet’s previous disc, Meditations, brings together a lovely combination of French, Italian and German works – some original, some arranged:

The Genesis of Minerva: Schumann and the Young Brahms – Minverva Piano Trio

minerva-piano-trio

Minerva Piano Trio (above): Michal Cwizewicz (violin), Richard Birchall (cello), Annie Yim (piano)

St John’s Smith Square, London; Sunday 23rd October, 2016

Schumann Piano Trio No.1 in D minor Op.63 (1847)

Birchall Contours (2014)

Brahms Piano Trio No. 1 in B, Op. 8a (original 1854 version)

A season-long residency as Young Artists at St John’s is enabling the Minerva Piano Trio to schedule several worthwhile recitals. None fitted the bill more than this afternoon’s programme, culminating in a rare revival for the First Piano Trio of Brahms as heard in its original version.

Completed when he was barely into his twenties, this is the only work from the outset of Brahms’s maturity to have survived essentially as it was conceived. That the composer substantially re-wrote it in 1889 (after his temporary ‘retirement’ from composition) but allowed the versions to co-exist suggests that, dissatisfied though he may have become with them, he was unable to suppress those earlier thoughts. One does not look to the 1854 version for formal unity or finesse, but it certainly has the edge in terms of expression and tonal cohesion.

The opening Allegro is as much about charting an emotional course through its constituent themes than fashioning them into a logical argument, yet such is the imaginative resource with which Brahms elaborates his material that the movement as it evolves becomes its own justification. The Minerva audibly appreciated this with playing as perceptive as the music required, then was equally inside the Scherzo with its alternately brusque and elegant ideas – and an intriguingly fugitive ending that the revision streamlines into something less arresting.

With its multiple allusions to the then nascent Lieder tradition, the Adagio casts a magnetic if unsettling spell and the Minerva accordingly brought out its exquisite ambiguity in full measure. No less impressive was a Finale which, irrespective of how convincing – or otherwise – is its reworking (and Clara Schumann’s strictures cannot be lightly dismissed), the audacious homecoming in B minor is here suffused with inevitability such as the older and wiser Brahms was unable to achieve by modulatory means alone: a QED in every sense.

A commanding performance, then, and the Minerva had been hardly less inside the idiom of Schumann’s own First Piano Trio at the start of this recital. Whether or not the emergence of his wife Clara’s masterly work for the medium just a year before was indeed the catalyst, the present piece harnesses those sombre hues often to the fore in Schumann’s later music with a textural translucency which never spills over into opacity. This, at least, was the impression left by a reading that plotted a resolute course through the discursive design of the opening movement then clarified the scherzo’s rhythmic intricacy without sacrificing its poise. The plangent ‘song without words’ that follows was seamlessly dovetailed into the finale, which unfolded with no lack of incident on its way to a decisive while tenuously affirmative close.

Coming between these expansive staples of the repertoire, Contours by the Minerva’s cellist Richard Birchall proved a diverting entity – its four brief movements amounting to a discreet unity that, with its evocative Nocturne and engaging Fast Waltz, confirmed a real grasp of this difficult medium. There was further music at the close – when, in response to generous applause, the Minerva gave an easeful reading of the Andante from Clara Schumann’s Piano Trio in G minor. An eloquent conclusion to an impressive recital by an ensemble which is clearly going places.

Richard Whitehouse

The Minerva Piano Trio returns to St John’s for further concerts on 9th March and 1st June 2017. Further information can be found at the St John’s website. You can hear more of the trio below: