United Kingdom BBC PROMS AT … CADOGAN HALL 6 – Robert & Clara Schumann: Amatis Trio (Lea Hausmann [violin], Samuel Shepherd [cello], Mengjie Han [piano]), Cadogan Hall, London, 26.8.2019. (CS)
Robert Schumann – Adagio and Allegro in A-flat major Op.70
Clara Schumann – Three Romances Op.22; Piano Trio in G minor Op.17
It was at Inselstraße 18, a few minutes’ walk from the centre of Leipzig, that the newly married Robert and Clara Schumann made their first home together, in a flat on the piano nobile of a tall neoclassical building. Here they lived from 1840 to 1844, a period during which Robert composed many important works, including the Spring Symphony, Liebesfrühling, the three Op.41 string quartets (dedicated to Mendelssohn), Dichterliebe and the Piano Quintet, which Clara premiered at the Gewandhaus. The visitors’ book reads like a roll call of the greatest Romantic composers, poets and performers of the day: Berlioz, Liszt, the Mendelssohns, Chopin, Hans-Christian Andersen, Joachim, Wagner and many others enjoyed the Schumann’s hospitality and music-making.
This lunchtime Prom at Cadogan Hall by the Amatis Trio presented works by both husband and wife composed in the years shortly after that period, when the couple were domiciled in Dresden and Clara undertook extensive tours as a solo pianist, but the concert seemed to celebrate in spirit that happy Leipzig sojourn.
Robert Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro Op.70 (1849) was originally composed for horn and piano, but it has been arranged for other combinations, including trombone, bassoon and, as here, cello. It’s hard not to hear the particular character of the horn, particularly in the Allegro, though Schumann had himself played the cello during the 1830s and the work enables the cello to reveal both its lyrical and passionate personae, which Sam Shepherd skilfully exploited. Shepherd plays with considerable refinement and precision: in the Adagio the gentle arcs were affecting, the leaps to the instrument’s higher reaches confident and clean; the cellist’s tone was bright in the ensuing Allegro, the bow strokes crisp and vigorous. I’d have liked Shepherd to have played ‘outwards’ more, though. Cadogan Hall is a large auditorium and the acoustic is not particularly helpful; Shepherd’s cello sang with beautiful lightness but did not always project strongly, particularly on the lower strings. Mengjie Han proved himself to be a very self-composed and adept pianist, sailing with a clean and gentle touch through Schumann’s intricacies and playing with vigour and exuberance at the close of the Allegro.
Han was joined by the Trio’s violinist, Lea Hausmann, for Clara Schumann’s Three Romances Op.22, which were published in 1856. Hausmann demonstrated a focused tone and sure sense of line, using a strong, full vibrato to draw forth the intensity of the restless Allegro molto, and balancing this with delicate ornamentation. Han’s quiet rising lines sensitively supported the lyrical melody and the duo conveyed the darkness beneath the dreamy surface. The Allegretto was more playful and the trills and grace notes in the violin melody once again sparkled cleanly, while the final romance, Liedenschaftlich schnell, restored an impassioned Romantic spirit. Here, Han articulated the expansive, sweeping chords and arpeggios very precisely, whether slurred or staccato, delineating the piano’s bass progressions with strength. Hausmann eschewed Romantic extroversion in favour of a more constrained expression. Her playing was assured and elegant, but these are ‘character pieces’ and their individual voices speak, I feel, more personally and forcefully than Hausmann suggested.
The Trio then came together for Clara’s Piano Trio in G Minor Op.17 (1846). a work which leaves one in no doubt of the composer’s talent. It is a fine work, perhaps her finest, though the Schumann’s contemporaries did not agree: an early critic compared it unfavourably to Robert’s D minor Trio, written shortly before, while another suggested that it was not necessary to compare Clara’s trio to Schumann’s masterpiece since it was quite bad enough on its own terms!
I’d agree only that it is not to her husband’s Trio that Clara’s Schumann’s work should be compared; rather, to my ear the echoes of both of the Mendelssohn’s piano trios are stronger, and such echoes do no disservice to Clara’s imagination or facility. Quite the opposite. The tense undercurrents of the Allegro moderato and the range of contrasting melodic and motivic material remind me of the first movement of Felix’s D minor Trio, while the Andante is a veritable ‘song without words’, its beautiful melody effortlessly unfolding before surprising surges inject Romantic ardour and unrest. If the final Allegro is a little more perfunctory in its musical material and has a less strongly defined character, then Clara’s incorporation of a fugal episode, exploring the movement’s primary scalic motif, provides interest and reflects the Schumanns’ study of counterpoint at this time, as Robert sought to stave off the mental illness that plagued him.
This was a careful and considered performance, and a democratic one too, with the three players ever attentive to their part within the whole. I did wonder whether it was wise to have the piano lid raised fully. Hausmann’s sound is not especially large, though she leads with authority and clarity at pertinent moments; moreover, the violin part lies in the instrument’s middle range for the most part. I’d have liked the violin to have projected through and above the piano’s rich conversations more emphatically. But, in the Scherzo the violin danced with elfin lightness, supported by the cello’s assertive pizzicatos, and the movement’s menuetto section communicated the yearning sentiments with gentle sweetness, creating a floating dreaminess. The Trio’s ensemble and accord was perfectly demonstrated in the Andante when, by means of an unexpected and thoughtfully shaped harmonic diversion, the troubles of the central episode were becalmed and the ‘song’ restored, Shepherd matching the dignified eloquence of Han’s beautiful phrased opening statement of the melody. If the Finale had not captivated as much as the preceding movements, then the accelerating Coda – especially Han’s bravura bass octaves and whirling right hand – ensured that there was excitement and exuberance at the close.
This concert will be repeated on BBC Radio 3 at 1pm on Sunday 1st September and is available on BBC iPlayer for one month.