One of my first encounters with Schumann’s music was when I was quite young. I remember having an LP of a mysterious ‘Wymah Cohata’ by ‘Bepmah’. Back then I didn’t know what it meant. It turned out to be a fabulous recording of a Schumann Piano Sonata by Lazar Berman (the record sleeve was written in Cyrillic). I recall having an instantaneous emotional attraction towards this sorrowful yet vibrant music.
Discovering the poetry
During my first decade of studies, I learnt Schumann’s Kinderszenen, Piano Sonata No 2 in G minor, Etudes symphoniques, Phantasiestücke and Intermezzos. But it was later, in my early twenties, when I discovered the Lieder, that I fell completely in love with Schumann. Through Fischer-Dieskau’s recordings of Myrten, Liederkreis and Dichterliebe and Christa Ludwig’s Frauenliebe und -leben, I was thrown irremediably into this poetic and complex world of kaleidoscopic human emotions and poignant truths. ‘Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan’ (‘Now for the first time you have given me pain’, from Frauenliebe und -leben) is an example of those painful revelations. The relationship between the text and the music, the harmonic tensions, the radiancy of happiness, the darkness of pain…all these elements blended into this music and made me feel part of an integrated world of beauty and reconciliation.
Schumann’s inner life was that of a poet, and as such he dreamt of a perfect world that not only doesn’t exist, but will never exist, which makes it all the more tragic. Schumann was also captivated by the idealism and innocence of childhood, which he tried to represent through Kinderszenen. The last two pieces in this set are ‘Child falling asleep’ and ‘The poet speaks’; it was Schumann’s way of showing the connection between the two, the poet representing the child in its natural state. While Schumann’s soul was fragile, his inner will was extremely strong – he understood his responsibility towards art, and fought against all obstacles with exemplary courage. It is our duty to make his music as comprehensible as possible. He needs us to prove wrong anyone who thinks his music was created by a perturbed mind. In a world of increasing cynicism, his purity of soul comes to protect us from destructive forces, so, just as we need to preserve forests to obtain oxygen for living, we also need to save Schumann to keep our innocence alive. Although I don’t believe his music speaks to everyone, I’m sure that where it does it touches the inner soul and transforms that person’s existence.
A love story
The Piano Concerto is one of my favourite pieces by Schumann. It’s a chant of love and warmth, a story of passion and abandon, an ocean of emotions in which one voluntarily lives, breathes and loves. He wrote the first movement, Allegro affettuoso, with his muse, Clara, in mind. As in many other works, his obsession with her is clear. He takes letters from her name, C and A, and creates with these notes an affable and expectant theme. The shape of this theme, with its descending and ascending movement, creates a sort of anticipation, a feeling of excitement about his love for her. For me, nothing in this theme is either self-indulgent or abated. Schumann’s heart is trembling, fresh and hopeful. The name Clara comes back in the development in a sort of call: ‘Clara! Clara!’ in a progression of descending sevenths. The middle episode, a heart-warming dialogue between piano and clarinet, is one of the peaks of beauty in this movement. The cadenza struggles to find a way out of the labyrinth, resolving in a frantic coda that brings the movement to a breathtaking close.
The second movement is an opportunity to enjoy a beautiful interaction between the orchestra and the piano; it’s a delicious chamber music moment. And the last movement is a happy dance, a celebration of life! Metric and rhythmic ambiguities colour the optimistic spirit that swells to exuberant triumph.
My experience of recording this piece was blazing and buoyant. As an interpreter, one is challenged continuously by Schumann’s music. The sudden changes of mood demand an extremely active and spontaneous approach, as one explores at the same time the idea of freshness and playfulness which Schumann also liked to inhabit. His music should sound as if it were happening in that very moment, giving the interpreter a fundamental role in the creative process.
My relationship with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra started a few years ago, and it has been deeply satisfying and gratifying. These musicians’ quality of sound, their flexibility and ability to connect – emotionally, musically and structurally – were everything a pianist could want, and they made me feel supported and embraced in the best way possible.
Explore more great piano concertos
Beethoven Piano Concerto No 5, by Paul Lewis
Brahms Piano Concerto No 2, by Nicholas Angelich
Grieg Piano Concerto, by Leif Ove Andsnes
Mozart Piano Concerto No 27, by Angela Hewitt
Prokofiev Piano Concerto No 3, by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet
Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 2, by Stephen Hough
Ravel Piano Concerto in G, by Pierre-Laurent Aimard
Shostakovich Piano Concerto No 2, by Alexander Melnikov
Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No 1, by Yevgeny Sudbin