“perhaps the most impassioned music I have ever written.”
Robert Schumann writing to Clara Wieck, March 1838

Never one for disguising his emotions, Robert Schumann wore his heart on his sleeve and his music reflects his joy at being alive – and of being in love. His Fantasie in C, composed in 1836, is a remarkable display of soul-bearing, a piece imbued with passionate and unresolved longing, and the heart-fluttering panoply of emotions from ecstasy to agony which being in love provokes. It was written during a particularly long separation from his beloved Clara Wieck, at a time when their future together was far from certain.

The Fantasie in C is a love letter in music, a culmination of passion, virtuosity and delicacy. No salon sweetmeat, this is a highly demanding, sweepingly romantic large-scale work which pianists approach with trepidation.

Originally intended as a tribute to Beethoven and eventually dedicated to Franz Liszt, the Fantasie is cast in three movements. It alludes to sonata form but like its dedicatee’s B-minor Sonata, Schumann dissolves the formal structure to create a work of striking improvisatory freedom which heightens its emotional impact and poetic narrative. The ‘Clara theme’ which pervades the work is heard immediately in the descending octaves of the right hand. The music is an intriguing mix of grandeur and intimacy: the opening statement, a rolling dominant 9th chord, expresses the full depth of the composer’s passion and the music moves from a state of yearning to one of subdued tenderness before the restatement of the opening. The Adagio coda begins with a secret love message to Clara: a phrase quoted from the last song in Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte: “Take, then, these songs, beloved, which I have sung for you.”

clara_schumann

“It makes me hot and cold all over,” Clara wrote of the march-like second movement, which grows more intense (and difficult to play) by its continuous dotted rhythms. It’s a majestic outpouring of joy which reaches its zenith in the exuberant coda, whose celebratory leaps (marked Viel bewegter – “with much movement”) would give even the most practised virtuoso some anxious moments.

Sublimely beautiful, tender and intimate, the third movement is an extended song without words, with ravishing diversions into the remote keys of A-flat and D-flat major which create an extraordinary sense of time suspended. In this movement the passion may be downplayed but it is no less powerfully felt. Falling motifs (drawn from the slow movement of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto), and melodies of intense poignancy give way to a section of delicate tenderness, a waltz in all but name with 2 voices – treble and bass – singing together. One can almost picture Robert and Clara clasped in a deep embrace. The coda is an ecstatic declaration, gradually increasing in speed, before pulling back to Adagio for the close and three hushed C-major chords which are at once peaceful and yet tinged with sadness.

Here is Piotr Anderszewski in the final movement:

 

‘Divine Fire’ at Craxton Studios Hampstead, Saturday 3 November 2018

The fascinating story of Fryderyk Chopin and the authoress George Sand is brought vividly to life by Viv McLean (piano) and Susan Porrett (narrator) in 7 Star Arts’ mixed-genre production ‘Divine Fire’.

Interwoven with some of Chopin’s most beautiful and popular piano works, ‘Divine Fire’ traces the relationship from their first meeting in Paris in 1836 until their parting in 1847. The story unfolds through a compelling, dramatic narration of events by the RSC and National Theatre actress Susan Porrett, interspersed with mood – evoking piano pieces – fiery scherzos, heart-rending ballades, stirring Polonaises and poignant Nocturnes – played by the great Chopin interpreter Viv McLean.

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‘An absorbing, moving and beautifully presented evening of words and music’

‘Divine fire’ was Sand’s own description of the intensity of her attraction to Chopin, suggesting a love that transcended the purely physical to a more spiritual plane, a meeting of bodies and minds.

The concert takes place at Craxton Studios in Hampstead, a fine example of English Arts and Crafts architecture and interior design. Originally built for an artist, the house was the long-time home of Harold Craxton, acclaimed concert pianist and teacher at the Royal Academy of Music. Craxton’s home became a creative hub for musicians, artists and writers – a tradition which continues to this day as the studio is regularly used for concerts, auditions, recordings and filming.

Viv McLean performs on Harold Craxton’s own Blüthner grand piano.

Divine Fire at Craxton Studios, Saturday 3 November at 7.30pm

‘The great strength of this format is the subtle interweaving of words and music…..Viv McLean’s understated, modest delivery always allows the music to speak for itself, while Susan’s words lend greater focus, encouraging us to listen to the music even more attentively.’

Read an interview with actress Susan Porrett about the creation of Divine Fire


Our times maybe troubled, deeply troubled, but thank goodness we can still gain pleasure and solace from music – and Daniel Grimwood‘s recently-released disc of piano music by Adolph von Henselt offers over an hour of unalloyed bliss.

If you didn’t know the name of the composer beforehand – and many may not – the opening notes of the first track might have you confidently exclaiming “oh it’s Chopin!”. There’s the same ominous tread in the opening as Chopin’s Op 49 Fantasie. And then you might think “it’s Liszt!” on hearing the tumbling virtuosic passages which sparkle under the lightness and precision of Daniel Grimwood’s touch.

Other works recall the bittersweet lyricism of Schubert or look forward to the richer textures of Brahms and Tchaikovsky. But this is Adolph Von Henselt, a little known Bavarian-born composer whom Grimwood champions.

Organised in the manner of an old-fashioned recital disc, there is much to savour and enjoy in the variety of works explored here. Virtuosic concert pieces sit comfortably alongside elegant miniatures, offering the listener a broad flavour of Henselt’s style and oeuvre. The Nocturnes, Impromptus and Études prove Henselt was every bit a master of these genres as his contemporaries Chopin and Liszt – and he made similar technical and interpretative demands on the pianist too. There are passages of vertiginous virtuosity which appear sweeping and effortless rather than merely showy with Daniel’s acute sense of the scale and pacing of this music. It’s lushly expressive but Daniel’s clarity and delicacy means it is never cloying or too heavily perfumed.

This disc would go into my “lateral listening” recommendations: if you love Chopin, I guarantee you’ll love Henselt just as much.

This is the second of Daniel’s recordings for the Edition Peters label and it has delightful cover artwork by Janet Lynch and comprehensive liner notes. As Daniel himself says of this disc: “It’s my small way of restoring Henselt…..to his rightful place in the repertoire

Highly recommended