Romance: The Piano Music of Clara Schumann (Isata Kanneh-Mason)
Whatever this disc’s shortcomings – and they are few – it ranks among the most charming and engaging debuts I can recall. Joining her cellist younger brother Sheku on the same label, Isata Kanneh-Mason chooses for her first visit to the studio not a selection of the same old same old but a single-composer programme of works with which few will be familiar and by someone who, without the current attention on her bicentenary year, is regularly overlooked. Moreover, we are presented not with a string of solo piano works but a representative survey of Clara Schumann’s oeuvre: a piano concerto, a sonata, chamber music, short solo works and transcriptions, all presented in chronological order of composition. So before a note is heard – three cheers!
Let me say straight away that the concerto performance gives Howard Shelley’s recent superb recording (Hyperion, 5/19) a run for its money. The wider variety of touch and tone that Shelley brings to the score and a greater understated assurance tip the balance in his favour, and I also think Kanneh-Mason is just a tad too slow in the lovely slow movement (Jonathan Aasgaard is the eloquent cello soloist). On the other hand, she brings weight and emotional heft to this uneven work that are entirely convincing, and is well matched in the exuberant finale by Holly Mathieson and the RLPO.
The same approach benefits the G minor Sonata, written in the early 1840s but not published (with the exception of the third-movement Scherzo) until 150 years later. It is no forgotten masterpiece but neither is it a negligible achievement, well worth hearing once in a while – after you have forgotten the resemblance of the opening phrase of the first movement to that of Weber’s Konzertstück.
Violinist Elena Urioste joins Kanneh-Mason in the Three Romances, forming another delightful partnership, even if it is only the second of the three pieces that deserves to be better known. The Scherzo No 2 is persuasively dispatched (a piece that surely deserved a proper coda instead of such a brusque conclusion), but it is the performances of the two song transcriptions that show what a gifted musician Kanneh-Mason is. Literal adaptations of Clara’s husband’s scores (there are no Lisztian amplifications in ‘Widmung’, for example), these are simply and beautifully played. And who knew they existed? There are, I have discovered, a further 28 for someone else to record. So another bravo for Kanneh-Mason on her recording debut, an artist with a great deal more imagination and originality than Decca’s marketing department has for disc titles.