August Piano Month came to a conclusion today at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral with a solo recital by Hillary Nordwell in the Noontime Concerts™ series (“San Francisco’s Musical Lunch Break”). The title of her program was Opus Six: A Musical Romance, and the romantic couple of the title were both composers and pianists, Clara Wieck and her eventual husband Robert Schumann. Each of them was represented by the performance of their respective Opus 6 compositions.
In Clara’s case this was the six-movement suite Soirées Musicales (evening musical concerts), composed between 1834 and 1836, when she was still Clara Wieck. Schumann’s Opus 6, the Davidsbündlertänze (dances of the Society of David) cycle was composed in 1837, about three years before he and Clara would finally be married. However, their relationship is already established through his decision to begin his Opus 6 with one of the themes from Clara’s.
This was an excellent plan for a program. Both compositions can be taken as indicators of the personalities of their respective composers. Clara’s suite draws upon “sociable” music, perhaps even with an eye towards the growing popularity of Frédéric Chopin (who was the same age as Robert). Her suite includes two mazurkas; by 1834 Chopin had published fourteen. She included a nocturne; Chopin had published six. For all we know, Chopin was working on his first ballade while she was working on hers. These are all pieces that fall relatively easily on the ear, but Clara’s capacity for expressiveness can rise to the same level as Chopin’s.
Robert, on the other hand, was already in the throes of the bipolar relationship of his own personality. This was realized through two fictitious characters, whom I have previously described as “the manic uncontrolled Florestan and the more cerebrally meditative Eusebius,” both of whom are members of Schumann’s equally fictitious Society of David. Indeed, each of the eighteen short movements of Davidsbündlertänze “belongs” to Florestan or Eusebius; and five of them (including the first and last) dwell on their contrasting personality traits. All of those relationships were cited explicitly in the program sheet that Nordwell provided.
Sadly, however, today’s performances never quite captured the rich foundation of characterization behind either of these Opus 6 compositions. This was unfortunate because each composition, in its own way, captured that sense of character through a rhetoric that was heavily dependent on its approach to rhythm. This was most evident, at least on the score pages, in how Robert distinguished Florestan from Eusebius. However, it was just as important when Clara set about distinguishing the different dance forms around which she had structured her suite.
The problem was that, for all of her judicious attention to the marks on the score pages, Norwell never really communicated that critical role of rhythm in either composition. Indeed, the Davidsbündlertänze so lacked any sense of a rhythmic drive for an overall narrative plan that it was already feeling as if it was going on forever before hitting its halfway mark. Nordwell is pianist for the One Art Ensemble chamber group, with whom she has performed Robert’s chamber music for Noontime Concerts™ as recently as April of 2013. Attentive listeners had every right to expect more expressive character in her playing today; but, sadly, such expressiveness never really materialized.