James Keller dis­cusses the strange his­tory of Schu­mann’s only Vi­o­lin Con­certo, which Midori per­forms at the Lensic

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - James M. Keller

End notes: Schu­mann’s Vi­o­lin Con­certo Robert Schu­mann is one of the ma­jor names of clas­si­cal mu­sic, and vi­o­lin con­cer­tos, which are peren­ni­ally popular as a genre, never lack for in­ter­preters. And yet, his sole Vi­o­lin Con­certo, com­posed in 1853, did not re­ceive a public per­for­mance un­til 1937. In­stead, its manuscript sat locked away in the Prus­sian State Li­brary in Ber­lin. It had been do­nated by Joseph Joachim, the renowned vi­o­lin­ist who Schu­mann had imag­ined would in­tro­duce the work to the public and who had, in fact, per­formed it in sev­eral in­for­mal read­ings be­gin­ning with a pri­vate read-through in Jan­uary 1854, with the orches­tra part be­ing played as a pi­ano ac­com­pa­ni­ment by Clara Schu­mann, the com­poser’s wife. Joachim de­posited the manuscript in the li­brary with the stip­u­la­tion that it not be pub­lished un­til a hun­dred years af­ter Schu­mann’s death, which is to say not un­til 1956.

That the piece was re­vived ear­lier than that re­flects a strange tale. It be­gins with the Hungarian vi­o­lin vir­tu­oso Jelly d’Arányi, for whom Bartók, Ravel, Vaughan Wil­liams, and oth­ers com­posed no­table con­cert works. Off the con­cert stage, she gained no­to­ri­ety as a psy­chic, and in 1933 she an­nounced that the spir­its of Schu­mann and Joachim had led her to Schu­mann’s forgotten score at the Prus­sian State Li­brary. In re­al­ity, the work was known to schol­ars, sev­eral of whom had ex­am­ined the piece, writ­ten about it, and left it to wait out its hun­dred years. The fact that d’Arányi was Joachim’s great-niece made things all the more pe­cu­liar, and a few mu­sic lovers must have thought it in­con­ceiv­able that the two would not have dis­cussed the piece — vi­o­lin­ist to vi­o­lin­ist as well as rel­a­tive to rel­a­tive — be­fore Joachim shuf­fled off his mor­tal coil in 1907, by which time d’Arányi was al­ready a sopho­more vi­o­lin ma­jor at the Hungarian Academy of Mu­sic. In any case, her an­nounce­ment ar­rived with ir­re­sistible éclat, and the re­sul­tant me­dia hype in­spired the firm of Schott Sons to pres­sure the li­brary into let­ting it pub­lish the piece im­me­di­ately. The com­pany’s edi­tion ap­peared in 1937, over the stren­u­ous ob­jec­tions of Schu­mann’s youngest daugh­ter, and var­i­ous vi­o­lin­ists jock­eyed for the rights to play the pre­miere.

D’Arányi threw her hat into the ring, but the pub­lish­ers in­stead se­lected a 21-year-old su­per­nova, Ye­hudi Menuhin. He an­nounced that he would give the pre­miere in his home­town of San Fran­cisco, with that city’s orches­tra con­ducted by its mu­sic direc­tor, Pierre Mon­teux. Menuhin was Jewish. Mon­teux was Jewish. Ger­man au­thor­i­ties in 1937 were out­raged. The Re­ichsmusikkam­mer, which by then con­trolled all mu­si­cal ac­tiv­i­ties within Ger­man bor­ders, de­creed that the pre­miere of this ne­glected work by a great Ger­man mas­ter must be en­trusted to a great Ger­man vi­o­lin­ist and must take place in the fa­ther­land — which is why it was rushed to its public pre­miere in Novem­ber 1937 in Ber­lin, with Ge­org Ku­lenkampff as soloist. This stole some of the spot­light from Menuhin’s Amer­i­can pre­miere a month later and d’Arányi’s Bri­tish pre­miere two months af­ter that. Fol­low­ing an ini­tial flurry of in­ter­est, the piece largely re­ceded again from the public ear. Hen­ryk Sz­eryng pro­moted it in the 1960s; Su­sanne Laut­en­bacher did the same in the ’70s; and Gi­don Kre­mer played it some in the ’80s — with all three leav­ing record­ings as tes­ta­ments. Its cham­pi­ons have be­come more nu­mer­ous since then, but it is still a tough sell. About 20 record­ings of it are cur­rently avail­able, which is not much when com­pared with ap­prox­i­mately 200 each in print for the vi­o­lin con­cer­tos of Beethoven, Men­delssohn, and Brahms.

The is­sue was qual­ity. Right from the out­set, Joachim had doubts about the piece. He did ac­knowl­edge to Schu­mann that he hadn’t played well at the first pri­vate per­for­mance, that he “did it an injustice.” But shortly af­ter com­plet­ing the piece, Schu­mann plunged into the Rhine in a sui­cide at­tempt and had him­self com­mit­ted to an in­sane asy­lum, where Joachim oc­ca­sion­ally trav­eled to visit him. One might as­sume that Joachim kept his com­ments on the pos­i­tive and en­cour­ag­ing side dur­ing the two and a half years of Schu­mann’s ir­re­triev­able decline. It would seem that his ac­tions spoke louder than his words, though, and (abet­ted by Clara Schu­mann and the other king­pin of the Schu­mann cir­cle, Jo­hannes Brahms) he felt they were do­ing the com­poser a fa­vor by con­sign­ing the piece to si­lence. He left no doubt when, in 1898, he wrote to his own bi­og­ra­pher ex­plain­ing why he did not sup­port the work, re­gret­fully shar­ing a litany of what he con­sid­ered its short­com­ings.

When Robert Haven Schauf­fler pub­lished his 1945 bi­og­ra­phy, Florestan: The Life and Work of Robert Schu­mann , he re­ferred to the piece only in pass­ing, and then dis­mis­sively: “The Vi­o­lin Con­certo has so lit­tle of the qual­ity which Schu­mann-lovers wish it had that … it might be called … a ‘dis­con­certo.’ In his piety to­ward the Mas­ter’s good name, Joseph Joachim was jus­ti­fied in en­deav­or­ing to keep the work from pub­li­ca­tion.” Not un­til the 1990s did opin­ion begin to swing very vig­or­ously in the op­po­site di­rec­tion. John Dave­rio’s es­sen­tial Robert Schu­mann: Her­ald of a “New Po­etic Age” (1997) re­con­sid­ers the re­ceived opin­ion that the com­poser’s late

works re­flect his crum­bling men­tal fac­ul­ties. “An un­bi­ased look at the late mu­sic will dis­close qual­i­ties too fre­quently over­looked: a height­ened in­ten­sity of ex­pres­sion, a rig­or­ous lim­i­ta­tion of the­matic ma­te­ri­als, and a vi­sion­ary pre­fig­u­ra­tion of fea­tures as­so­ci­ated with later com­posers in­clud­ing Bruck­ner, Reger, and even Schoen­berg.” He then draws lis­ten­ers’ at­ten­tion to the un­fold­ing of mu­si­cal themes in the sec­ond move­ment of the Vi­o­lin Con­certo. “One could say that the point of the move­ment re­sides pre­cisely in the grad­ual re­al­iza­tion of this mo­tive’s po­ten­tial. ... Only a com­poser in full com­mand of his or her ra­tio­nal pow­ers can re­al­ize the con­se­quences of this in­ter­de­pen­dence of va­ri­ety and unity. Robert Schu­mann was such a com­poser — un­til Fe­bru­ary 1854.”

On Satur­day, Feb. 28, and Sun­day, March 1, vi­o­lin­ist Midori will ap­pear with the Santa Fe Pro Mu­sica Orches­tra as soloist in this con­certo. Ac­cord­ing to Thomas O’Con­nor, who will con­duct, the idea to per­form it came from Midori. “She has signed a con­tract to record it with Christoph Eschen­bach and the Staatskapelle Dres­den in July 2015, so this sea­son presents an op­por­tu­nity for her to be­come com­fort­able play­ing the con­certo with a va­ri­ety of orches­tras.” In the course of study­ing the work, he has be­come an en­thu­si­ast. “I think it’s a fan­tas­tic piece, and a lot of vi­o­lin­ists now have an in­ter­est in it that didn’t ex­ist be­fore. It’s a re­flec­tion of the slow process of rec­og­niz­ing that the piece has ex­tra­or­di­nary pas­sages in it, and that it is thought­ful and well con­structed. The open­ing move­ment has a full-throated, ro­bust orches­tral in­tro­duc­tion in which themes are clearly stated, very much like Beethoven’s Vi­o­lin Con­certo in that way, and yet this is in Schu­mann’s own lan­guage. The move­ment’s devel­op­ment sec­tion is ex­tra­or­di­nary in it­self; where Beethoven might have built drama out of a melodic frag­ment, Schu­mann in­stead builds a four-note frag­ment into won­der­ful so­los for the clar­inet and then the oboe. There’s a nos­tal­gic calm­ness and rest­ful­ness about it that is un­usual for a devel­op­ment sec­tion. It’s very haunt­ing, sim­ple but pow­er­ful. I can’t think of any­thing quite like it.”

The third move­ment is some­times cited as be­ing overly repet­i­tive in its fig­u­ra­tion and un­vary­ing in its over­all ef­fect, but here, too, O’Con­nor sees it oth­er­wise. “There is a spot in the third move­ment that is ab­so­lutely ex­tra­or­di­nary,” he in­sisted, “where the har­mony moves through a beau­ti­ful, oth­er­worldly se­quence of mostly mi­nor-sev­enth chords. One might look at the more un­usual as­pects of this con­certo and say they are re­flec­tions of his de­te­ri­o­rat­ing men­tal state. But I think in­stead that he is push­ing the bound­aries of com­po­si­tion, that he is do­ing things that are for­ward-look­ing.” That triple-time fi­nal move­ment also presents a prob­lem in­volv­ing tempo. Schu­mann’s head­ing leaves room for puz­zle­ment: Leb­haft, doch nicht sch­nell (Lively, yet not fast). To this Schu­mann adds a metronome mark­ing of 63 beats per minute, which most guides would say trans­lates to a very slow tempo like largo or ada­gio. “It can be suc­cess­ful at that tempo,” O’Con­nor said. “Gi­don Kre­mer made a record­ing with [con­duc­tor Niko­laus] Harnon­court that makes the case for fol­low­ing Schu­mann’s metronome mark­ing. The move­ment has the char­ac­ter of a polon­aise, with ac­cents on the first and third beats of many bars, which in it­self would hold it back a bit. Still, it seems slow to most vi­o­lin­ists; it doesn’t make for the kind of high-en­ergy py­rotech­nics that would be more typ­i­cal of last move­ments of con­cer­tos. We’ll go with what­ever tempo Midori wants.”

Be­fore the tide turned on as­sess­ments of the Schu­mann Vi­o­lin Con­certo, com­men­ta­tors of­ten cited the vi­o­lin writ­ing as phys­i­cally awk­ward, par­tic­u­larly in pas­sages in­volv­ing melodic leaps and wide-span­ning arpeg­gios. “Maybe that did con­spire against the piece in the past,” O’Con­nor said, “but to­day the tech­ni­cal ac­com­plish­ment of vir­tu­oso vi­o­lin­ists is so high that I don’t think it’s an is­sue. I be­lieve the piece de­serves to be one of the ma­jor sta­ples in the vi­o­lin reper­toire.”

The Santa Fe Pro Mu­sica Orches­tra per­forms Beethoven’s Sym­phony No. 8, “Mu­sica Ce­lestis,” by Aaron Jay Ker­nis, and Schu­mann’s Vi­o­lin Con­certo with Midori at the Lensic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter (211 W. San Fran­cisco St.) at 4 p.m. on Satur­day, Feb. 28, and at 3 p.m. on Sun­day, March 1. For tick­ets, $20 to $65 (with dis­counts avail­able), call 505-988-1234 or visit www.tick­etssantafe.org.

Ti­mothy Green­field San­ders

Con­duc­tor Thomas O’Con­nor

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