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Classical Album of the Week: A Young, British Pianist Explores The Music of Clara Schumann

September 9, 2019. The 200th birthday of the great musician Clara Schumann (1819-1896) is September 13th. To celebrate, we're showcasing an impressive debut recording of works by Schumann from London Decca by pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason—the oldest sibling in a famously talented family of young British musicians.

Clara Schumann’s brilliant career was unusual for a woman of the 19th century. She was a piano prodigy and already concertizing at age 9 when Robert Schumann, nearly 10 years her senior, became a student and houseguest of her father’s, the pedagogue Friedrich Wieck. The subsequent friendship, romance, and deep marital bond between Robert and Clara was intense, and inspired his greatest compositions.

Clara’s own compositions are less well-known, although she was trained to compose from an early age. On our Classical Album of the Week, Clara’s significant early work, her Piano Concerto, Op. 7, written at age 13, is given a fine performance by Kanneh-Mason and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Holly Mathieson.

Along with the Piano Concerto, Kanneh-Mason gives a beautiful performance of the Three Romances for solo piano, Op. 11, and a thoughtful account of the Piano Sonata in G minor, written during Clara’s early years of marriage to Robert, and never published in her lifetime.

The most striking and memorable pieces on the album reveal Clara’s affinity for chamber music and for her husband’s music. Three Romances for Violin and Piano, Op. 22, which Kanneh-Mason performs with violinist Elena Urioste, sing with freshness and poignancy, and demonstrate Clara’s deep understanding of the piano as a collaborative instrument.

Her transcriptions of two of her husband’s most famous songs, “Widmung” and “Mondnacht” reflect her respect and love for his incomparable music, and provide a fascinating contrast to Franz Liszt’s more famous and showy lieder transcriptions.

Although she produced a significant amount of work, most notably songs and chamber music, Clara Schumann curtailed her composing career by the time she was 36. Bearing eight children and bearing the responsibility of making money for the household as a renowned virtuoso (especially after Robert’s mental breakdown and early death) limited her time to compose.

She also gave precedence to her husband's career, perhaps feeling that it was more important to support his undeniable genius and creative imagination

Isata Kanneh-Mason gives welcome voice to Clara Schumann’s own creative genius, in this finely crafted Classical Album of the Week.

Debra's last day on the air at WRTI was September 21st, 2021. She's now the radio host for The Metropolitan Opera. Read more here.