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Clara SCHUMANN (1819-1896)
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 7 (1834) [23:36]
Piano Trio in G minor, Op. 17 (1846) [30:24]
Francesco Nicolosi (piano)
Alma Mahler Sinfonietta/Stefania Rinaldi
Rodolfo Bonucci (violin); Andrea Noferini (cello)
Rec. Naples, May, September 2004. DDD
NAXOS 8.557552 [54:00]

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Make no mistake, Clara was her own woman; much like Fanny Mendelssohn or Alma Mahler. In all three cases their compositions have long been lost in the shadows cast by those of their husbands or brother. Clara’s case has been further complicated due to her reputation as a virtuoso pianist and that endures to this day. Happily in recent years record companies have realized the potential in this repertoire, even though live performances continue to be comparatively rare.

Of the three ladies I mentioned Clara is the one with the widest compositional grasp. Along with Fanny and Alma, there was a lively concern with lieder (27 songs in total; versions on cpo and Arte Nova labels), as well as a clutch of solo piano (also on cpo) and chamber works. The concerto is Clara’s only existing orchestral work.

The concerto encompasses “enthusiasm, restraint, delicacy, turmoil – the whole world characteristic of the time and place where it was born”, to quote pianist Dana Protopopescu, who has recorded the work with the Romanian National Radio Orchestra under Horia Andreescu for Electrecord – unfortunately a company and artists are too little known, and so far without UK distribution, taking this interesting version out of the running as a rival.

The opening Allegro maestoso ushers in the soloist with passages of flourish, demonstrating the need for a highly accomplished soloist. One can imagine Clara setting herself up a challenge, but also accommodating strengths in her own technique and style. Francesco Nicolosi rises to the task with clarity and command of the part, matched by the Alma Mahler Sinfonietta under Stefania Rinaldi. The inner Romanze contains the heart of the piece, with contrasting inward-looking mood. The marking is Allegro non troppo con grazia, and it is the last part that seems key here, and is caught superbly in the recording.

As with Chopin – that other great pianist-composer of the time – there is perhaps the tendency to expect the orchestration to be an afterthought; merely an unimaginative context to the pianistic fireworks being unleashed. This view could not be further from the truth as the finale - indeed the whole work - confirms. There is something akin to Chopin’s concerti here, in the opening passages particularly.

The Piano Trio partners Nicolosi with Rodolfo Bonucci and Andrea Noferini, who together make an elegant fist of the piece. There are compositional problems with the piece, principally in the last movement, which is not as thematically strong as the rest. It is emphatically fugal in character. The three instruments blend well, and the playing is unforced – capturing the mood of a nineteenth century drawing room. The piano takes a more equal role with violin and cello in a Brahmsian vein. Like the concerto, this is a work that grows on you with repeated hearings.

Fifty-four minutes is rather short measure these days, but these are works of quality, ably performed with feeling and atmosphere, and as ever at Naxos’s enticing price of five pounds. Definitely worth immediate investigation.

Evan Dickerson

See also Review by Colin Clarke April Recording of the Month




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