Saturday, February 2, 2019

The War of the Romantics Is On

Robert Schumann in 1839,
the year before is marriage to Clara.

Robert Schumann wrote his sprawling Fantasy for Piano Op. 17 in 1836 out of longing Clara Wieck, whose father, Friedrich, furiously opposed his intentions, no matter how honorable they might have been. Robert was 26 that year. Clara was 17.

What some guys won’t do to get laid.

The message must have gotten through, however, because despite an enforced separation that included several concert tours, Clara married Robert in 1840 (at the respectable age of 21) and bore him half a dozen children.

The Fantasy, performed with passion and steely control by Rollin Wilbur, was just one of many rich pleasures to be had at last weekend’s dramatico-musical presentation by the Fine Art Music Company. Titled “War of the Romantics ― Part 1,” the program focused on the first generation that musical  movement ― the Schumanns, Liszt, Chopin ― with Beethoven included as their spiritual precursor and Brahms given the last word as their successor.  

The issue at stake in the war was the legitimacy ― even the possibility ― of program music, with Liszt on one side, Schumann and Brahms on the other, and Chopin somewhere uncomfortably in the middle, sneaking messages into his music that he then kept to himself. If the dispute seems pointless today, it was no more so than the one that led to, say, the First World War, and it destroyed far fewer lives.

It also left us with some extraordinary music.

Kasia Salwinski was riveting in Chopin’s B-flat Scherzo Op. 31 and Liszt’s Valee d’Obermann (whose program, I must confess, added nothing to my enjoyment of understanding of the score.) She was more physically involved with the music than I ever remember seeing her, and in a way that has nothing to do with a performer’s trick of “selling” a piece. It seemed to take possession of her, although, being a perfectionist and a wholly modest person, she told me afterward she wasn’t fully satisfied with her outing in the Chopin.

Adelya Shagadulina brought an ethereal touch to the first movement of Beethoven’s Spring Sonata (for violin) and Robert Schumann’s Fantasiest├╝ck (for viola). We were also treated to Brahms’s own arrangement for piano four hands, of the third movement of his Third Symphony and the second movement of his Piano Concerto No. 2. The latter is a favorite of mine, with one special moment I always listen for.

I could have done with less of Robert Edwin, who narrated the proceedings (reading from a script by playwright Ella Remmings) as a fictitious critic named Gerhard Denhoff. He was especially intrusive in the first half, when he repeatedly interrupted the music to make some point, then browbeat the musicians into starting over.

On the other hand, my companion for the afternoon, who hearing much of the music for the first time, told me she was grateful for the context ― and gossip ― he provided.

He was also a pleasant surprise as a singer in Robert Schumann’s brief “Dedication.”  In a clever turn, the piece was repeated twice in arrangements for piano solo (by Liszt) and for violin and piano (by Leopold Auer).

The program was presented Jan. 26 at Ivy Hall in Philadelphia and repeated Jan. 27 at the Ethical Society Jan. 27. I saw it at the Ethical Society, sitting in the largest crowd I have ever seen attend a Fine Arts Music program. Congratulations all around.

The next program in the series will be held at the end of March.

Saturday, January 19, 2019


I missed the Elysian Camerata's January 13 program at St. Asaph's, Bala Cynwyd. Somehow I got it into my head the concert was scheduled for January 27, the same day I was planning to attend Fine Art Music Company's second event in its "War of the Romantics" series.

Fortunately. the Elysians repeated the program last night at the First Presbyterian Church in Ambler, which is convenient to my new office in Fort Washington. I made a spur-of-the-moment decision late Friday head afternoon to stick around after work and head on over.

And it (the program, not my office) was a stunner.

The evening  began with  the charming but forgettable sonata for two cellos by Boccherini and ended with  the charming but unforgettable Sextet Op. 39  by Brahms. In between was the evening's real highlight, the String Quartet No. 1 by Bartok, who at age of 27 had already come into his own as a composer. It's an astonishingly mature, confident piece, and the women of the Camerata matched that confidence note for note. The performance was  extraordinary in itself, but all the more so for being so rare in the Philadelphia suburbs.

Talia Schiff, the group's regular cellist and one of its guiding lights, as well as  a friend of mine, told me during the reception that while a complete Bartok cycle would be a daunting task, she would like to program the Fourth Quartet at least. Apparently, that's  the one students spend the most time with, since it is the most exhaustively analyzed.

At last, a reason to live.   

In retrospect, I'm glad I went to the Ambler performance. It was the first time I've heard music at that First Pres, which had comfortable, padded pews and bright, lively acoustics.  Not to dis St. Asaph's, but at First Pres on can hear every note without sitting in the performers' laps. Ambler also has many fine restaurants.  I won't need to eat again for a couple of days.