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Clara SCHUMANN (1819-1896)
Variations on a theme by Robert Schumann Op.20 (1853) [12:00]
Three Romances Op.11 (1839) [13:55]
Four Flüchtige Stücke Op.15 (c.1840-44) [14:36]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Bunte Blätter Op.99 (1836-49) [38:36]
Sara Costa (piano)
rec. 2019 at Castello di Morsasco, Italy
DA VINCI EDITION C00286 [79:27]

Italian pianist Sara Costa's recital opens with Clara Schuman's Variations on a theme that Robert wrote and closes with the collection that contains that theme; the album is a celebration of the love and musical links between these two giants of the 19th century. Clara's fame as a composer has been slow to re-emerge but it is gaining headway in this exploratory age. Her pianistic talents have always been valued and many gifted pianists benefitted from her teaching and guidance and in turn have passed that on to other pianists. Coincidentally I have been immersed in APR recordings recent release of the recordings of Evlyn Howard-Jones and Edward Isaacs, both of whom studied with pupils of Clara Schumann (APR6035 review). Robert genius is of course as acknowledged now as it ever was but Sara Costa has chosen his less often heard Bunte Blätter rather than any of his more familiar collections; it is something of a scrap book bringing together pieces from across his career, several of which were originally intended for inclusion in sets such as Kinderszenen or Papillons. Their omission from their intended sets does not appear to be for a lack of quality or imagination; I find no duds amongst them and there are several real winners – the Novelette, the ninth of the collection has always been a favourite of mine and the first Albumblatt is beautiful in its haunting simplicity.

It is this Albumblatt that Clara chose as the theme for her Variations on a theme by Robert Schumann. The Variations were Clara's return to composition after a hiatus in the first years of her marriage to Robert and if they do not really stray far from the opening key there is a wealth of imagination here. Particularly moving is the chromatically advanced third variation in F sharp major as well as the canonic treatment in variation 6. Clara's virtuosity is evident in several variations, notably the delicate figuration of the 4th variation but this is not the frivolous note-spinning of the salon variations so prevalent at the time; the work as a whole has more in common with the Variations serieuses of Mendelssohn.

The more I hear of Clara's music the more impressed I am. I recently became acquainted with the Romances op.21 and now we have the op.11 Romances written 14 years earlier. First is an exquisite Barcarolle, full of melancholy while the second is an extended song without words, the left hand doing much of the singing whilst the right hand provides a syncopated accompaniment. Syncopation adds to the urgency of the bustling central section. Robert apparently felt particularly drawn to this piece; in your romance I can hear again that we are destined to be man and wife ... I hear hints of Chopin and his Mazurkas in the final Romance, an elegant minuet like work.

The Fleeting pieces op.15 begin in much the same lyrical vein with a beautiful song in F major. An agitated piece in A minor is next, restless ascending runs and repeated chords contributing to its nervous energy. The third piece could almost be a transcription of a Schumann song, poised and nobel. As with the second romance it is syncopation that gives much of the sense of yearning in the central section, exploring harmony quite imaginatively. The bouyant, vaguely Schubertian Scherzo that closes the set is the same as the scherzo included in the G minor Sonata that Clara wrote for Robert in 1841.

Sara Costa really brings these works to life. Her phrasing is wonderful – I have the first of the Fleeting pieces on as I write and the vibrancy of the playing is marvellous. She is similarly satisfying in the diverse moods of the Bunte Blätter; impressively exuberant in the second and third pieces, the second with its rhythmical complexity and the third, a Hunting Song that stands besides Mendelssohn's more famous example (op.19 no.3). The aforementioned first Albumleaf is tender and nostalgic while the second Albumleaf, fleeting and quicksilver, was used by Brahms as the inspiration for the ninth variation of his own Variations on the same theme that Clara chose. Costa has no fears in the tricky Novelette (no.9) or the dramatic Præludium (no.10), a sturdy chorale-like melody over a constant maelstrom of an accompaniment. At 9:08 the longest piece here is the March, funereal in mood if not name, in which Costa manages the drama well; it does not outstay its welcome. The penultimate piece is a Scherzo in G minor, a more heavily-built cousin to the Scherzo that closes Clara's Fleeting pieces but an equally engaging work and the set and indeed the recital ends with the quiet end of an otherwise lively Quick march.

Sara Costa is a sympathetic and sensitive player and has put together a well balanced and nicely thought out programme; this could easily be one of my releases of the year.

Rob Challinor

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