The album cover for "Clara, Robert, and Johannes: Atmosphere and Mastery" features a pink background with three triangle shapes. Inside each triangle, there are old-style images of Clara, Robert, and Johannes, creating a vintage and artisti
NACO Recordings

Atmosphere and Mastery

Clara - Robert - Johannes (Pt. 3)

Released March 24, 2023

Composers: Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms
Performers: Alexander Shelley, National Arts Centre Orchestra, Stewart Goodyear, Yosuke Kawasaki, Rachel Mercer, Gabriela Montero, Liz Upchurch, Adrianne Pieczonka
Period: Romantic

"A superb collection." — ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ BBC Music Magazine

Clara, Robert, Johannes

This is the third of four albums in our recording cycle exploring the closely intertwined personal and artistic connections between three musical giants: Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann, and Johannes Brahms. The symphonies of Robert and Johannes are paired and combined with chamber and orchestral works of the composer, pianist, mother, wife, and muse that they so admired, cherished, and loved – Clara.

This music is a joyous gift to listeners but also a window into an intimate artistic conversation between the three composers. As you will read in the eloquent notes by author Jan Swafford and Clara Schumann scholar Julie Pedneault-Deslauriers, the works on this recording are as interwoven in their musical DNA as the lives of these three extraordinary musicians. It is my hope that in listening, we hear the mutual inspiration and admiration that they shared, recognize the debt they owe to one another, and celebrate how much they gave us.


Atmosphere and Mastery

Beyond the matter that this recording pairs two of the towering symphonies in our tradition, their connection is of a great moment beyond the notes, because it involves composers whose lives were profoundly intertwined both personally and musically: Robert Schumann, who discovered Johannes Brahms when he was a student of 20, in a notorious journal article declared him the coming saviour of German music, and soon after was overcome by madness; and Brahms, who, after that unnerving introduction to the world, and his mentor’s collapse, fell in love with Robert’s wife, Clara, one of the premier pianists of her time.

If that sounds wrangled, indeed it was. In one sense, Brahms owed Robert everything; but at the same time, the unearned notoriety that Robert inficted on the younger man hobbled him creatively for years. Meanwhile his passion for Clara Schumann, while her husband faded away in an asylum, was an exalted and horrendous mess. Yet when, after a long decline, Robert died and Clara was free, Brahms’s response was to run away. He would remain a bachelor to the end. But he never really escaped either his love for Clara or the sword Robert had hung over him.

Robert’s infuence was musical as well. Among other things, Brahms picked up Robert’s quirk of representing people in his life with notes, most famously his “Clara theme,” C B A G# A, which Brahms also used in pieces. (It comes from the musical letters of her name.) The point of the symbolism was this: when Robert and Brahms used her theme, Clara was there, present in the music.

In September 1850, Robert visited the newly completed Cologne Cathedral and was galvanized by that mighty edifice on the bank of the Rhine. Soon after, in just over a month, he completed his Symphony No. 3, which he called the “Rhenish,” an evocation in five movements of Germany’s fabled river. With its leaping and muscular first movement, folksy scherzo, solemn and grand portrait of the cathedral for a fourth movement, and gayly dancing finale, it was one of the few quick successes of his orchestral career.

In 1883, Brahms went to Wiesbaden on the Rhine for one of his regular working vacations. There, it appears, the river turned his mind to the Schumanns and Robert’s “Rhenish.” His mentor’s symphony was a program piece, based on the image of the myth-laden river, but Brahms studiously refused to write program music. History has tended to conclude that this means his work is abstract, free of autobiography. But that is not in the least true, and Brahms never claimed that his work was independent of his life – he just didn’t like to talk about it. The evidence is in the notes.

So that summer on the Rhine, Brahms wrote his own Symphony No. 3. It begins with two pealing chords that lay out the central motif of the work: F A F. What we hear next is a boldly striding theme, which, in its robust rhythm, recalls Robert’s opening of the “Rhenish” and is in fact a quote from Robert – not his main theme, but a snippet that occurs midway through the first movement. In that quote lies the significance of this symphony for Brahms: as with the Clara theme, when he quotes Robert, Robert is present in the music. And so, of course, is Clara. Brahms is thinking back to those years of his youth when his life and career became inescapably entwined with both of them. At the end of the symphony, after four movements of incomparable beauty and power, the Robert theme returns, drifting gently down to rest. Its harmony forms another quote, which is the beginning of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 26, “The Farewell.” That is the secret meaning of those unforgettable final bars of Brahms’s third: farewell Robert, and farewell to that wondrous and terrible time.


Clara Schumann (1819-1896)

The works by Clara Schumann on this album reson- ate alternately with the picturesque qualities of Robert’s Symphony No. 3, “Rhenish” (especially the lieder and character pieces) and the concentrated intensity of Brahms’s Symphony No. 3 (especially the sonata and the trio).

Like the “Rhenish,” the three lieder “An einem lichten Morgen,” Op. 23 No. 2 (1856), “Am Strande” (1840), and “Lorelei” (1843) all evoke the splendour of nature; as is so common in the Romantic era, imagery of nature stands in for human emotion. “An einem lichten Morgen” employs botanical meta- phors in a passionate ode to love and lovemaking, one carried by dynamic bass lines and fights of arpeggios, while in “Am Strande,” the ebb and fow of unrelenting piano sextuplets depicts the tides that separate a lover from their beloved, as well as the lover’s emotional journey from anguish to hope.

In “Lorelei,” the composer vividly expresses the legend of the forsaken sailor lured by a treacherous nymph who sits on a rock overlooking the Rhine through contrasting voices for the poem’s narrator, the sailor, and the Lorelei. All three songs feature a texture favoured by Schumann in her lieder – a voice soaring in long-breathed arcs over a bustling piano part.

The Quatres pièces fugitives, Op. 15 (1845) are in a more contemplative mood, especially nos. 1 and 3, but are just as powerfully suggestive in distilling their expressive atmospheres into intimate, self-contained ternary forms. The lovely “Larghetto” balances delicate lyricism and the subtle developments of motives such as wistful appoggiaturas and off-beat arpeggiations; the “Agitato” has been likened to an “elfin scherzo”; and the “Andante espressivo” recalls the singing keyboard style of Clara’s romances for piano.

Schumann’s Piano Trio, Op. 17 (1846) is perhaps her most accomplished large-scale composition. Critics at the time hailed its “calm mastery of the formal artistic medium” and its “abstract strength,” and it was performed frequently in the later 19th century (including once by Brahms). The work displays the full range of her compositional powers, from the lyricism of the pensive, autumnal opening “Allegro” to the contrapuntal techniques found in the fourth movement.

Her only other published work in the four-movement sonata genre is the Sonata in G Minor, composed in 1841–42 but published only in 1991 – except for its “Scherzo,” which first appeared separately as the fourth of the Op. 15 pieces (it appears with the sonata on this recording, rather than with the Quatres pièces fugitives). Both the trio and the sonata nod to Classical traditions, but Schumann infuses them with a healthy dose of Romantic innovation through colourful harmonic twists, subtle blurrings of formal markers, and her unique blend of lyrical expansion and focussed expressivity.


Reflection by Rachel Mercer: Clara Schumann's Piano Trio

On the cover of my trio score is a beautiful drawing of Clara, her head slightly tilted to one side, curls falling around her face, eyes haunting. Leading up to and during the recording sessions, this image sat on my music stand as we immersed ourselves in her sound-world. It captivated me, and every time I looked at it, her expression seemed subtly different, as if the lines of her features were slightly adjusting to my perspective of the moment.

As the music vibrated through the air, I wondered what she was trying to tell me through her gaze, what she would think of our performance all these many years later, of her life and legacy being honoured and recognized in this small way. A recording is a time capsule, and a performance can never be recreated in the exact same way. Our moods, energy, thoughts, and experience affect every note, constantly shifting and changing from moment to moment.

This recording represents those particular moments when we were present together in the studio – three musicians and a small group in the booth, all of us with our own full lives, allowing her notes on the page to inspire us and connect us to her, to each other, and to you, across time and space. And like her image on the cover, even though the recording won’t change, every time we listen, the experience will be different. Maybe one day we read about her life and hear new things in the music. Maybe something in our own lives is refected to us by the music in a meaningful way. Or maybe sometimes we just allow the sounds to surround us and fill us with vibration, feeling carried along by the fow. I don’t know if she ever thought about her legacy and what her music would mean to us on so many levels all these years later. She was just compelled to create and perform. Now when I look at her image, I say thank you, Clara. Thank you for this music that is alive and that touches us each in our own way.