Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Rhapsody and Rapture

By , 11/06/2022

Orchestra Wellington presents: RHAPSODY
BRAHMS – Alto Rhapsody
Contralto: Kristin Darragh
Male chorus Orpheus Choir
CLARA SCHUMANN – Piano Concerto in A minor
Piano: Jian Liu
ROBERT SCHUMANN – Symphony No 4 in D minor, Op. 120
Conductor: Marc Taddei
Orchestra Wellington

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 11th June, 2022

‘It’s all about Clara Schumann,’ said Marc Taddei, Orchestra Wellington’s conductor.

Brahms wrote his Alto Rhapsody for the wedding of Clara’s third daughter, Julie, in 1869. The second work on the programme was written by Clara Weick, as she then was, between the ages of 13 and 15. And Robert Schumann’s Symphony No 4, written in the first rapturous year of their marriage, has the word ‘Clara’ musically encoded throughout.

One thinks of Brahms as having always been middle-aged. I blame record sleeves for reproducing those very bearded photos from his fifties and early sixties – but he was an athletic, handsome, blond twenty-year-old when he first met the Schumanns. He was still a handsome man of 36, blond and beardless, when he wrote the Alto Rhapsody.

The programme notes described the work as ‘a rather odd wedding present’. Odd indeed – it seems to be full of the pain Brahms felt on hearing of Julie’s forthcoming wedding. At the
age of 26 he had been engaged to Agathe von Siebold, but the engagement was broken off. Ten years later he began to fall in love with Julie Schumann, then aged 24, but did not declare himself. When the news of her engagement arrived, he wrote the Alto Rhapsody.

The work is a setting of part of a long poem by Goethe, ‘Harzreise im Winter’, from his Sturm und Drang period, about the loneliness of a man climbing in the Harz mountains in winter. ‘Who heals the pains of one for whom balm has turned to poison?’, it begins. The answer
seems to be: ‘No one. Get over it. Music helps.’

The sombre opening chords are from the lower brass; then the texture thickens. The first two stanzas are in C minor, with a shift to C major in the third. Kristen Darragh’s first entry imitated the dark sound of the lower strings. Although the programme described her as a contralto, the biographical note called her a mezzo-soprano. She has qualities of both: a very beautiful bright higher register, with lots of power lower down. The orchestra provided rhapsodic support. The male chorus (TTBB) was provided by about 30 men of the Orpheus Choir, singing sludgy German that sometimes dragged the tempo. They did rather better further on when they got to the German Requiem-like harmonies.

The Alto Rhapsody is recorded pretty often. Wikipedia lists 19 recordings between 1945 and 2012, with two apiece by Kathleen Ferrier and Janet Baker. I first heard the Janet Baker recording with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult, and there was something of Janet Baker’s approach in Kristen Darragh’s performance, though I found Darragh’s voice beautiful in every register, from her bottom B to her high G flat. But the Alto  Rhapsody is not performed in concert very often, presumably because of the extra cost of the male choir for only a few pages of music. The recordings vary in length from 11 minutes 15 seconds (a French recording) to over 16 minutes (Christa Ludwig with the Vienna Philharmonic under Karl Böhm).

Taddei was pretty brisk, coming in at 12 minutes, but the tempi seemed well judged to me. The soloist was never left hanging out to dry, and the emotional depth was quite deep enough without any wallowing. There were many lovely moments, such as the soprano over pizzicato lower strings in the third stanza, a clarinet solo or two (Nick Walshe), the always-gorgeous horns, and the final words from the chorus, ‘sein Herz’ (his heart), which sounded like a final Amen.

Young Clara Wieck was already an accomplished piano soloist and had performed several times with the Gewandhaus Orchestra by the time she started writing this piano concerto. It is a remarkably mature and accomplished work. Clara’s bossy piano-teacher father tried to limit her composing because he thought it would get in the way of her playing. Robert Schumann, whom she met at one of her first recitals (she was 9, he was 18), encouraged it. Writers and critics have long thought that Robert influenced Clara. But the US musicologist, Nancy Reich, who examined the manuscripts of both Schumanns and wrote an acclaimed biography of Clara (Clara Schumann, the artist and the woman, OUP, 1989), said the boot was on the other foot. Clara was a very significant contributor to Robert’s compositions, said Reich; sometimes a co-composer. On the strength of this piano concerto she was clearly capable of it.

From the start, this is a confident work. Clara had already played some Chopin polonaises, and it shows in the writing. (For his part, Chopin heard her play, aged 18, and told Liszt all about her.) Her orchestral writing here is assured and appealing, and the piano writing is glorious, both virtuosic and lyrical. Jian Liu did it full justice, with crisp, precise playing and gorgeous, subtle gradations of colour. Taddei followed Liu’s tempi, and the orchestra played with sensitivity, matching his palette of bright and dark colours. In the second movement the stage lights came down, leaving only the pianist and the first desk of the cello section lit. The piano plays an extended solo passage, and finally the principal cello (Jane Young) enters. There is a passionate duet; then the cello withdraws. The third movement is also attacca, beginning with a little trumpet fanfare plus timpani, then a big string sound and full lower brass, a horn solo (Shadley van Wyk and Ed Allen), and an echo from bassoon (Preman Tilson). The trumpets introduce a Chopin-esque passage (minus pathos), just lots and lots of notes up and down the keyboard with tempo changes. Jian Liu turned on a dime, with Taddei and the orchestra always keeping in touch.

The audience went wild. They obviously love Jian Liu (who doesn’t?) and they were warm in their applause for Jane Young too. After being called back twice, Jian Liu came back a third time and played an encore, a pleasant nocturne by … Clara Schumann.

Only one work after the interval, Robert Schumann’s well-known Fourth Symphony, written in the rapturous first year of their marriage. Marc Taddei, obviously a great favourite of this large subscriber audience, spent some time explaining how Clara’s name (C B A G# A) appears in every movement, sometimes inverted. Examples were provided on the spot by the cello section, Concertmaster Amalia Hall, the first violins, the trombones, and the horns. The audience loved it.

‘This is one of the most radical symphonies of the nineteenth century,‘ he told them (because each movement flows straight into the next). And then, ‘It is a privilege to serve you.’ The audience purred with pleasure.

And off they went.

Schumann’s Fourth is an attractive work, bathed in sunshine. The orchestra played it well, from the confident opening to the three big final chords. The cellos always made a lovely sound; the string sound was warm and the upper brass bright and clean. Amalia Hall’s ‘filigree’ version of the Clara motif was lyrical and beautiful. The third movement burst open, a fast and furious scherzo, with exquisite violin playing. The horns sang the Clara theme; then the trio section followed with the first violins playing the filigree Clara motif. The fourth movement was all sunshine and daisies, with tidy tempo changes, before the final accelerando to the finish. Rapturous applause.

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