"My Clara, what would I not do for love of you?" --Robert Schumann to Clara Wieck, 1838.
"For Love of You is a tribute to Clara Wieck Schumann, painter and composer, celebrating the 200th anniversary of her birth (9/13/1819)."
Pianist Lara Downes is famous for her theme-oriented albums, and this one is no different, honoring the music and marriage of two beloved composers, Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck Schumann. The program begins with Robert's Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54 from 1845; continues with Clara's Three Romances, Op. 11 from 1840; and ends with Robert's Fantasiestucke, Op. 12 from 1837.
So, things begin with Robert's Piano Concerto, his one and only piano concerto, with Ms. Downes accompanied by the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra under the direction of Martin West, their Music Director since 2005. When Robert premiered the completed concerto, his wife Clara, an accomplished pianist, was the soloist. Here, of course, it's Ms. Downes, also an accomplished pianist, although she doesn't always get to show off her classical credentials in full-scale works.
After so many years of hearing the Piano Concerto played by gung-ho Romantic pianists banging away with it, Ms. Downes's performance may come as a surprise. For the good, I hope. She takes a slightly gentler approach to the score than do most other performers, a more nuanced approach that eschews a lot of the theatrics we often associate with it. Perhaps Ms. Downes is remembering that Clara Schumann premiered the work, and this is part of her tribute to the composer's wife. The interpretation certainly emphasizes the longings and dreamlike aspects of the music.
In any case, with Ms. Downes the opening Allegro affettuoso lives up to its name, "fast but tender and affecting." And Maestro West ensures a poignant presentation with his lyrical direction of the orchestral support. It's really quite refreshing. The slow central movement, an Andantino, follows suit, lighthearted and charming but never sentimental. Then Ms. Downes and company bring the work to a rousing but still softhearted close.
Following the concerto we get Clara Schumann's Three Romances, a brief, three-movement work written during Clara and Robert's rather turbulent courtship. Ms. Downs suggests in the liner notes that the pieces "illustrate the passion and creative synergy that brought two great artists together, despite obstacles and struggles, into a union that produced some of the greatest works of the Romantic era." Ms. Downes's playing illustrates the point with a performance of controlled passion and creativity.
The program concludes with Robert Schumann's Fantasiestucke, also written during Clara and Robert's courtship. The Fantasiestucke is a set of eight solo pieces for piano inspired by an 1814-15 collection of works by one of Robert's favorite authors, E.T.A. Hoffmann (think here of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann, Delibes's Coppelia, and Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker). The music is colorful, to be sure, and as in the concerto depicts the two sides of the composer's own personality, one dreamy, the other passionate. Ms. Downes's handling of the material is appropriately vivid, exciting, picturesque, and reflective.
The only minor drawback to the product is the fact that like so many CD's these days, the disc is enclosed in a slip-out compartment in a cardboard container. This necessitates using one's fingers on the top and bottom of the disc to pull it out, not only incurring inevitable fingerprints but possibly scratching the disc on the cardboard in the process.
Producer Adam Abeshouse made the recording at Skywalker Sound, Marin County, CA in February 2016. As we might expect from a record made at Skywalker, it sounds excellent. In the concerto the piano is exceptionally well defined without being too close-up, and the orchestra, perhaps a trifle soft, is well set out behind the soloist. Never once do we hear a note that is too bright, too edgy, too forward, nor too veiled or subdued. The solo pieces are likewise well detailed and smoothly recorded.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: