Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Concerto Guide: Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor, op. 54

At the risk of possibly disappointing some readers I am going to skip over concertos by Paganini and Chopin that would come next chronologically (the first Paganini concerto would come before Berlioz, having been composed in Italy around 1818) as they are largely vehicles for virtuoso display while the other concertos we are covering, while also vehicles for virtuosity, are more than that. Perhaps this is my own personal bias, but I find mere virtuosity, that is to say fast scales and arpeggios racing around on the instrument, when protracted, to be some of the most boring music imaginable. Virtuosity is an essential element of a concerto, but for a satisfying aesthetic experience, there must be other elements of equal interest--at least! The eternal model for the concerto might just be the Mozart piano concertos that are always beguiling, surprising and structurally powerful as well has having enough virtuosity to keep them sparkling.

In 1845, Robert Schumann completed his one-and-only piano concerto, though there are two other works by him for piano and orchestra. The concerto medium was rarely the focus of Schumann's energies--compared to his enormous output of lieder, solo piano music and even chamber music, his concertos for solo instrument and orchestra are few, amounting to the A minor Piano Concerto, the Cello Concerto (also in A minor) and the very late Violin Concerto that took until 1937 to be premiered, due to its being buried by the dedicatee Joseph Joaquim.

The Piano Concerto is not only a fine piece, well-established in the repertoire, it has also influenced a number of other composers of concertos for piano. There are probably a couple of reasons for this: first, this is really the first important Romantic era piano concerto. The ones by Franz Liszt, while there are sketches going back decades, were not completed until 1849 and later. Second, Schumann uses a number of devices that were enormously influential, such as the striking opening with the hammered-out forte E in the orchestra answered by the big dotted-rhythm chords that descend over most of the piano's range. Here is what that looks like:

A lot of the energy of this piano phrase comes from its tonicizing in succession F major in first inversion, then root position, then D minor, then A minor, then F major in first inversion again and so on. This is brought to a halt by a very powerful V7-i cadence in A minor.

This kind of opening was later used by both Grieg and Rachmaninoff. Even the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Tchaikovsky has an opening that echoes a bit the same idea: that the individual, represented by the piano, is no longer an equal partner with the orchestra, but may even dominate it. In the Schumann, Grieg and Rachmaninoff concerti, after a sonorous downbeat by the orchestra, the piano immediately leaps in and commandeers the movement. Even in the Tchaikovsky, while giving the theme to the orchestra, the piano accompanies them with such huge, resounding chords that it sounds easily as powerful as the orchestra itself. And in short order, the piano takes the dominant role.

So Schumann was not only first out of the gate with a Romantic piano concerto, he also hit upon some characteristic strategies that other composers would make use of. Apart from the commanding opening given to the piano, the other important innovation used by Schumann is the thematic transformation of the opening theme, given first to the oboe:

Then to the piano:

This whole statement is actually a 16-measure period with the oboe ending with a half-cadence and the piano with a perfect authentic cadence. This theme appears in different guises. In the piano in C:

A very abbreviated version in the Clarinet (in A):

And so on. The idea of using transformations of a single theme to unite a movement or a whole piece while not unprecedented (think of the Bach Art of Fugue) was rather an innovation used in this way and in this genre. It would be taken up by a host of later 19th century composers, very much including Franz Liszt.

Now let's listen to a performance. The attractive soloist, Khatia Buniatishvili, in her very striking dress, wasn't the only reason I chose this version. It is a particularly crisp clip both for visual and audio. Here she is with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paavo Järvi:


Rickard Dahl said...

Great analysis. And a great concerto to listen to. I also don't like virtuosity for virtuosity's sake. Doesn't matter how hard or easy something is as long as it sounds good. I don't agree with that Chopin's concertos are primarily displays of virtuosity. Or at least I never thought about them that way.

Anyways, I've been listening to Mendelssohn's Concertos this week and I think there are some excellent ones outside of the Violin Concerto, for instance the Double Concerto for Violin, Piano and Strings (the later one): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=seEA50S2Zp8 or his Piano Concerto No. 3 (which he didn't finish, sadly): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ql99ngpV89s

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Rickard. The Schumann is a lovely piece, isn't it? I suppose for me the Chopin concertos have always been very overshadowed by his mature solo piano music. I am, of course, going to do the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto next, but I appreciate your alerting me to other of his concertos. Mendelssohn is not a composer I know very well.

Marc Puckett said...

I have been listening to the Schumann performed by Andreas Staier (Herreweghe/Orchestre des Champs-Elysées) and Martin Stadtfeld (Elder/Hallé Orchestra) too often in the last couple of weeks, so looked his Concerto up here: this is very nice, too. Are 'crispness' and 'clarity' more or less the same characteristic or are critics getting at different things?

And then I went on to listen to Martha Argerich and Jan Lisiecki-- which latter performance caused me to drive off into thinking about child prodigies-- someone else had mentioned Augustin Hadelich the other day and of course I had never heard of him--... there may be a post in that subject for you.... Did search and read your post from July last year. It is such a commonplace, the pushy and driven parent pursuing the poor child to neuroses and worse, that it tends to be overlooked, perhaps, that, as you wrote, a child, however naturally talented, needs parents and teachers to assist the cultivation/education in appropriate ways.

Bryan Townsend said...

All I can speak to is how I use the words "crispness" and "clarity" when talking about music. For me, "crisp" always describes the rhythmic aspect. It is a positive virtue meaning that the rhythms are well-articulated, incisive and compelling. It is the opposite of dull, sodden, lagging and drooping! "Clarity" on the other hand usually refers to the texture. It means that you can hear and distinguish the different voices easily. A similar term would be referring to a "transparent" texture. Mozart and Bach are known for the clarity of their writing. The opposite would be a thick or opaque texture where what you hear is a great lump of sound. The ideal examples of this might be Wagner and Bruckner. But I feel I should offer a caveat. It is characteristic of Romantic music that it have a full, rich sound and the fuller and richer you make it, the more difficult it is to have a clear, transparent texture. But that wasn't their goal anyway.

Marc Puckett said...

Ah; thanks! But you don't want to say that the Romantics forgot that clarity is a virtue, perhaps? they had other priorities in their composing, I suppose.

Bryan Townsend said...

I've been accused of being a "classicist" to which I reply, "guilty!" But yes, the Romantics had other qualities they wanted to emphasize: rich, resonant and all-embracing warmth.