Thursday, October 3, 2019

Lara Downes Honors Clara Schumann Bicentennial

courtesy of Naxos of America

For Love of You, the latest album featuring pianist Lara Downes, was released by Flipside Music on September 13, 2019. I chose to be specific, because that day marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Clara Schumann. The album presents two solo compositions dating from the rather tumultuous courtship that Clara endured with Robert Schumann, based on passions that emerged during Robert’s studies with Clara’s father Friedrich Wieck. The album also begins with Robert’s Opus 51 concerto in A minor, which figured significantly in Clara’s activities as a concert pianist following Robert’s death. The solo works on the album are Clara’s Opus 11 set of three romances and Robert’s Opus 12 Fantasiestücke collection.

I must confess to being more personally attached to Clara’s work than most listeners. While I was never really up to snuff in my work at a piano keyboard, I had a voracious curiosity for repertoire. Thus, when Da Capo Press published a volume of reprints of six of her compositions in 1979, curiosity rushed in where personal dexterity feared to treat. The time I spent with her Opus 11 may not have been adequately satisfying, but it definitely helped me to become a more appreciative listener.

One result is that, with the proliferation of repertoire brought on by CD technology, I was able to add an “all-Clara” recording to my emerging collection in the late Eighties. I thus welcomed the opportunity to appreciate another pianist’s point of view. Listening to Downes play Opus 11 triggered no end of fond memories and reinforced how the hauntingly descending left-hand theme of the second piece had been so firmly etched into memory. In all fairness, however, I have to confess that I have always listened to these pieces in terms of “the music itself,” with no associations to the mutual passions of Clara and Robert.

The Fantasiestücke, on the other hand, have always been consistently out of my league. That may be the key reason why I continue to be curious about how different pianists approach the eight pieces in this collection. By coupling it with Clara’s Opus 11, Downes established a sense of complementary expressiveness. I am not sure that this is necessarily consistent with the emotions behind the personal relationship between the two composers; but there seems to be a sense of common emotional ground in these two collections, even if that sense is entirely a fabrication of my own listening dispositions!

Where the concerto is concerned, there is no shortage of recordings from both the distant past and the present of young pianists eager to make a noticeable impression. In the context established by For Love of You, this is music distinguished by what happened after Robert’s death, rather than during the period of courtship. As a result, the historian in me would probably have preferred to have the concerto recording follow the two solo piano compositions, rather than precede them. In the context of this album, the concerto is “about” how life went on for Clara after Robert’s death. Mind you, this may not have been a disposition behind the approach taken by either Downes or her conductor, Martin West, leading the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra; but, to this particular listener, the shoe seems to fit a little bit better every time I listen to this particular interpretation.

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