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Beatrice Rana puts two composers on equal footing in 'Clara & Robert Schumann: Piano Concertos'

Courtesy of the artist

A mention of Clara Wieck today can sometimes draw a blank stare, begging the clarification that I’m referring to Clara Schumann, wife of Robert. In their time, the situation was the exact opposite — Clara was one of the 19th century’s top piano virtuosi, beginning as a child prodigy.

After her marriage, advertisements for her performances would often include the parenthetical “geborene Wieck” (born Wieck) to assure patrons they’d be hearing the same great pianist they knew. Pianist Beatrice Rana’s new album, alongside Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, features both composers — crediting Clara first, and correctly so, because if it weren’t for Clara, we might not have Robert.

That statement sounds incredibly bold today, but consider that Robert Schumann was studying law with music as a side interest until he first saw Clara Wieck in concert — inspiring him to pursue music studies with her father. Clara’s following was surely one reason he wrote his piano music with her in mind.

She went on to develop the standard recital format, incorporating her and her husband’s music among that of other composers, such as their friend Johannes Brahms, as well as Beethoven. Robert’s music gained even more prominence as Clara pared back her composition while raising their seven children (an eighth did not survive infancy), and laid down her pen when she laid him to rest, though she continued to perform for decades. Clara was the star of their time, and the importance of her top billing on a major-label album with her husband cannot be overstated.

Clara was quite young when she wrote her concerto: she started writing it at 13, and premiered the final version at 16, with herself on the piano and Felix Mendelssohn on the podium. She brilliantly showed off her ability as both a pianist and a composer, a point emphatically made by Rana, Nézet-Séguin, and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

Both Rana and Nézet-Séguin agree (and I do as well) that Clara was a great influence on her husband, and that’s shown in multiple ways by this concerto. First of all, Robert didn’t even write orchestral music until Clara encouraged him to in the years immediately following their marriage — his only experience prior was helping Clara orchestrate the third movement of this very concerto. Also, if you check out Robert’s song cycle Dichterliebe, the very first piano melody, beginning “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai,” is taken directly from the second movement of Clara’s concerto, which is still exemplary for its beautiful duet between the piano and a solo cello.

Which brings us to Robert’s concerto. It’s a staple of the classical repertoire for a reason, and the performance on this album is outstanding. Hearing the concerti side by side, you can notice Robert giving the soloist a break, both after the first movement, a standard that Clara eschews, and in many more orchestral tutti sections where the piano soloist does not play. Rana mentions, as other pianists have noted, that Robert’s concerto is easier for this.

The album closes with a song that Robert dedicated to Clara the year of their wedding (the title, “Widmung,” literally means “dedication”), as arranged by one of Clara’s piano rivals, Franz Liszt. It’s a beautiful and fitting way to close, and I will begrudgingly admit that Liszt’s arrangement adds more to the song than Clara’s simple transcription (found on Isata Kanneh-Mason’s recording of the concerto and other Clara works) did.

The performances are superb, as to be expected, though perhaps as someone whose home orchestra is The Philadelphia Orchestra, I’m a little surprised at the choice of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe as the ensemble here — not that they do a bad job by any means, but I’d suggest listening to this without the Philadelphians’ recent performance in mind, because this one might feel comparatively underwhelming. That does, though, enable Rana to stand out even more and give more to these pieces written by and for one of the greatest pianists ever.

Giving the spotlight to Clara when Robert is right there might seem like a very 21st-century thing to do, but what Rana and Nézet-Séguin have provided is a 19th-century context, both in their performance and their discussion featured in the liner notes. This is not a new lens through which to view Clara’s position as we would see her, but a restored picture of who she actually was: one of history’s preeminent pianists, one of the most famous musicians of her time, and at least as capable a composer as her husband. We’ve known her by way of another, but this album adds to the evidence that Clara Wieck stands tall on her own.

Clara & Robert Schumann: Piano Concertos is available now on Warner Classics.

John T.K. Scherch (JohnTK@wrti.org) shares the morning’s musical and other offerings weekdays on WRTI 90.1. Previously, he was the first new host on WBJC in Baltimore in nearly 20 years, hosting the evening, Sunday afternoon, and request programs, and he is also an alumnus of U92, the college radio station of West Virginia University and a consecutive national Station of the Year winner.