Intimate Schumann from Four Leading players of the Orchestra of Santa Cecilia

ItalyItaly Schumann: Alexander Lonquich (piano), Cristina Barbuti (piano), Carlo Maria Parazzoli (violin), Simone Briatore (viola), Luigi Piovano (cello), Alessandro Carbonare (clarinet), Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Sala Sinopoli, Parco della Musica, Rome. 16.11.2016. (JB)

I’ve long held that Schumann is at his finest when he is at his most intimate: the depths of his creativity are to be heard in Schumann the minimalist.  But as with other great minimalists, less is more.  Here is where his music sounds like it pours out of him effortlessly.  (We know that some of it was not effortless, but that is another story for another day).  His experiments in bigger forms (bigger both of structure or/and instrumentation) often provide him with a challenge which he is unable to meet, though the struggle itself sometimes comes up with interesting music.  But to my own ear, this often comes out as an obstusification of the man’s genius.  Please be yourself I want to say to this music.  In the chamber music it is the genial genius we hear.  Neither ambition nor other vice gets in the way of it.

Four leading players of the Orchestra of Santa Cecilia have come together with Alessandro Lonquich to  play a concert of Schumann’s  intimate music at the Sala Sinopoli in the Accademia’s Wednesday night Chamber Music  Season.  It was the peace of Palestrina last week, and is the troubled soul of Schumann tonight.  Have your soul’s crash helmet at the ready.  Some of the journey might be rough.

Mächenerzählungen Op.132 (1853) is four short Fairytales for clarinet, viola and piano.  The first two and last tales are all marked Lebhaft (lively) and make use of the jagged rhythms beloved of Schumann, and maybe best known in the opening of the piano concerto.  Lonquich (piano) and Briatore (viola) were listening to one another carefully as they traded musical snippets.  This is the essence of chamber music: their listening finds expression in their playing and becomes the main joy of their audience.

Alessandro Carbonare (the famous virtuoso clarinetist) seems to regard the piece as a clarinet concerto.  Sorry sir, but it is not, as your colleagues seem to have understood.  Oddly, when Schumann makes the clarinetist the soloist in the third tale – Ruhiges Tempo, mit zarten Ausdruck (quietly measured with expressive tenderness) – Carbonare decides to take a back seat to his accompanying colleagues!  His moment of glory is lost.

Bilder aus Osten Op.66 (1849) (Scenes from the East) for piano duet at one instrument is in six short scenes.  Schumann was inspired by the medieval Arab poet, Hariri of Basra, whose fifty anecdotes record the adventures of the mischief-making hero, who Hariri says was born in Sarlij in northern Syria.  Schumann knew an acclaimed German translation and said the hero immediately reminded him of Germany’s own fictitious hero, Till Eulenspiegel.  Jerky, cheeky, merry rhythms abound.  Sheer fun!  It was doubtless first enjoyed in performance by the composer with his pianist, composer wife, Clara Wieck.  Alexander Lonquich was joined by his wife for tonight’s performance, Cristina Barbuti.  The four hands play as two and their music is made by an extraordinary united mindset.  If their marriage is anything like their playing, it was surely made in heaven.  Just like Robert and Clara Schumann before Robert began to loose his mind and Brahms became a bit too interested in Clara.

Half a century ago in my student days I was surrounded by an enormous number of clarinetists, all wanting the services of a half-decent pianist (me) who would rehearse through with them the Schumann Fantastücke Op.73.  I think it must have been on the list for a competition or exam.  I played the (beautifully written) piano part so many times, I eventually knew it from memory.  As accompanist you are required to give just the right level of support to the clarinetist.  That requires lightening adjustment throughout, of ear, mind and fingers.  At that time, Trinity College rehearsal rooms were furnished with Bluthner grands, which much aided the enterprise.  One day a clarinetist said, When I play quietly, rising with crescendo, it sounds like publicity for seasickness pills.  Please tell me how you produce your pianissimi with an increased solidity of sound.   I said I knew how it was done on a piano (Henry Geehl had recently given me the technique) but I had no idea how it might be done on a clarinet; I could only guess that it could have something to do with breathing, like withholding your breath while appearing to be not withholding it.  He played around with a few phrases, then said, Thanks.  That’s the best clarinet lesson I ever had: I think I’m rid of the seasickness.  I must add that even today I don’t know one end of a clarinet from another.

However, some seasickness was distinctly audible tonight, especially in the second (Lebhaft leicht – lively and lightly) and the third (final) movement (Rasch und Feuer – impetuously with fire).  The first movement (Zart mit Ausdruck – expressive and tenderly), was Alessandro Carbonare at his incomparable finest, with a lyricism in which every note was perfectly placed within its phrase shape.  Alexander Lonquich was in sensitive support from start to finish, sometimes producing pianistic nuances which were new for me, but always most welcome to my ear.

Schumann’s Quartet for piano and strings in E flat, Op.47, was written in 1842, arguably the most creative year in Schumann’s life; it is also the year of the three string quartets, the piano trio and the better-known piano quintet. The Schumanns were most frequently entertaining at home (they had their first child, now aged two) and all this music emits a music for friends air, which is how chamber music was born some two hundred years earlier.  This also must get the top prize for the best ensemble.  As musical conversations are passed between the four it sounds as though they are involved in each-other’s breathing, and you can’t get sexier than that.  I can’t help feeling that Robert and Clara would have beamed on them in admiration.  The whirligig finale fugato brought the house down, and they finally conceded an encore of the moving Andante cantabile (the third movement).

Jack Buckley

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