“Clara Schumann was steel,” said noted biographer and composer Jan Swafford, while her husband Robert Schumann was “glass.” Motherhood, her career as a preeminent concert pianist, and the cracking and shattering of Robert’s mental health kept Clara from prolificacy as a composer. But her overall significance to 19th-century German music has received increasing attention in recent years, including a flowering of interest on her 200th birth anniversary four years ago that has persisted.
The Aspect Chamber Music series paid tribute to Clara Schumann on Feb. 9 with “For the Love of Clara,” a concert by Grace Park, Brook Speltz, and Adam Golka. It presented music by both Schumanns and concluded with a world-class performance of Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 1.
An illustrated mini-lecture by Swafford provided entertaining and enlightening background. Having read his wonderful biographies of Brahms and Beethoven, I found his presence an especially pleasing bonus.
Off-book with Brahms
The program opened with a reminder that while the primary classical music canon dates from centuries ago, it still hold surprises. Pianist Adam Golka started things off with a non-programmed performance of “Album Leaf” by Brahms, who figured prominently in Clara’s and Robert’s lives. Only discovered in 2012, it provides a glimpse of the mature Brahms, though he wrote it when only 20.
Golka had the spotlight in the next selection too, joined by cellist Brook Speltz. The “Romanze” by a very young Clara Weick (later Schumann) evidenced her great talent, even at age 15.
In both selections the pianist drew from the Steinway a silvery tone and flowing textures, finding an ideal balance of Romanticism and controlled musicality.
Robert Schumann’s “Fantasiestück, Op. 73 featured Golka and Speltz again, playing with almost magical synchrony. Several moods cycle through the three brief movements, but the emotionality was always at full throttle in this rendering. Good balance between piano and cello allowed the musicians’ crisp articulation to strike home.
Unlike with Brahms, it’s taken some years for me to appreciate Robert Schumann’s music generally. Hearing renditions like this, it’s hard for me to understand why.
Schumann and Brahms
That feeling continued with Robert Schumann’s “strange and magical” (in Swafford’s words) Violin Sonata No. 3. Golka and fiery violinist Grace Park (no stranger to the Aspect Chamber Music series) unspooled its rich, dark colors by leaning into the eeriness with sustained musical integrity and easy flexibility. Their swooping energy shone through the glittering triplets of the second movement and reached a peak in the at-times Chopinesque, at-times almost schizoid-sounding Intermezzo. Their nimble articulation did not flag during the Finale, as they expressed waves of emotion with clarity and finesse.
The Brahms Piano Trio No. 1 is to my mind the greatest such piece of its time. In the surprisingly spacious acoustics of the Bohemian Hall auditorium, a mere three instruments seemed to belie the term “chamber music,” so full was the sound and so integrated the voices. The second movement was positively transportive, recounted with agility and rhythmic assurance. I had never heard the slow movement sound so deliciously ominous. And the great cello melody in the finale soared.
The concert measured up and more to the Aspect series’ wonted high quality. The Brahms, even though it was the piece I knew best, was to me especially revelatory.
This season of the Aspect Chamber Music series continues through winter and spring 2023. Next up: “Spanish Impressions” from the Hermitage Piano Trio on March 16. Visit the website for upcoming events.