Re-Assessing Schumann’s Violin Concerto with Elmar Oliveira and Stewart Robertson
On March 5, 2012, violinist Elmar Oliveira performed Schumann’s Violin Concerto with the Atlantic Classical Orchestra under the direction of conductor Stewart Robertson. That performance, which took place in Boca Raton, Florida, at Lynn University’s World Performing Arts Center was recorded live by Artek and is reviewed below. A fascinating feature of that disc is a 20-minute conversation between Oliveira and Robertson in which they discuss various aspects of the concerto’s technical challenges and its checkered history.
Oliveira and Robertson discuss some of what transpired between Schumann and Joseph Joachim while work on the concerto was in progress, and then some of what transpired between Joachim and Clara Schumann after Robert died. But the story, as it has been documented, is quite a bit more complicated than what is revealed in their conversation, with some very strange twists and turns in the plot. Clara and Joachim were not the only conspirators involved in suppressing Schumann’s violin concerto. Schumann had already passed the point of no return on his way to Looney-Tunes-Ville when he wrote the piece in 1853 and sent it off to Joachim for an opinion. Joachim thought none too highly of the piece, but sent it off to Brahms for a second opinion. Brahms concurred with Joachim that it was probably best for Schumann’s reputation if the concerto somehow managed to disappear, but neither of them had the heart to confront Schumann directly. So, after conferring with Clara, it was agreed that the concerto should be buried in a time capsule until 100 years after the composer’s death. Thus Brahms, too, was a collaborator in the scheme.
The concerto would have remained under wraps until 1956, as intended, were it not for the meddling of Jelly d’Arányi. She was Joachim’s grand-niece, an accomplished violinist in her own right, and a sandwich short of a picnic herself. She began claiming that Schumann had contacted her during a séance in 1933, entreating her to liberate his incarcerated concerto. A nasty fight ensued between d’Arányi and Schumann’s surviving daughter, Eugenie, who wanted the work kept under wraps until it was to be officially disentombed in 1956. But bureaucrats at the Prussian State Library, where the score was being held, were superstitious enough to fear the wrath of Schumann’s ghost if they didn’t heed his voice from the hereafter, and so they opened the vault more than 20 years before its time.
Unsurprisingly, d’Arányi then claimed exclusive right to premiere the concerto in public, but in that effort she was thwarted. At first, discussions about a first performance were entered into with Yehudi Menuhin and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, but in the end, it fell to Georg Kulenkampff and the Berlin Philharmonic to premiere the work in 1937, as you mention in your conversation. Jelly d’Arányi did give the London premiere of the concerto, a performance on which critic Robert Elkin remarked, “Of this dismal fiasco, the less said the better.”
Since then there actually have been a handful of recordings, most notably for Mercury in 1964 by Henryk Szeryng, followed by Boris Belkin, Gidon Kremer, Thomas Zehetmair, Joshua Bell, and more recently, Renaud Capuçon. So, the piece has not really been as neglected as some might think. Yet, despite its having a number of leading violinists advocate for it on disc, Schumann’s concerto has remained at the periphery of the mainstream repertoire.
Jerry: After this lengthy introduction, let me begin with a leading question—call me a hostile witness, if you like, or at least a skeptical one. Do you believe the piece is a frog just waiting for his princess to turn him into a prince? Or to put it another way, do you think Schumann’s concerto will ever join the ranks of the major crowd pleasers like the Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Bruch, and Sibelius concertos? Hasn’t enough time passed for history to have rendered its judgment and found Schumann’s score flawed and wanting?
Elmar: Well, it’s interesting that you put it in those terms. All of the concertos that you mention are perhaps some of the greatest masterpieces ever written for the violin. There are of course a few others. Mozart probably ranks up there. However, I can think of at least 15 more concertos that are standard repertoire and certainly have a great deal to say on their own. Masterpieces, I don’t know if you would go quite that far but certainly either crowd pleasers or very substantial works on their own. I would put the Schumann in this same category not necessarily as a crowd pleaser but as a very substantial work all on its own. There are quite a few concertos that are part of the mainstream violin repertoire that if I scrutinize closely I can clearly find flaws, but nevertheless I still find them to be substantial works.
Stewart: There are several factors at play here which, when combined, can often damn the piece even before it gets performed. Firstly, the widely publicized revivals of the piece by Kulenkampff and d’Arányi utilized bastardized versions of the score that omitted large sections of the concerto and rearranged others. It wasn’t until the very recent appearance of the meticulously researched and edited critical edition of the work that Schumann’s real intentions were made clear, by which time much damage had already been done to its reputation. Let’s not forget, too, that Joachim was only 22 when he hastily formed his opinion of the work, and that this was after he had thrown together two orchestral readings of the concerto with himself as soloist, occasions for which he had invested an insufficient amount of personal practice time and which he felt necessitated a letter of apology to the composer. This experience doubtless left him with a certain sense of discomfort when it came to his association with the work. We know, too, that Joachim was a classicist, and that despite his youth, his musical tastes were very much those of the old school. Joachim never again played the Schumann concerto, and interestingly for us in this context, later in life he was to enter into an acrimonious exchange with Dvořák concerning that composer’s concerto (which had been written for him) over the same issues; namely, that the recapitulation was too short, that two movements ran into each other without a break, and that the finale repeated material too frequently. Joachim’s own violin repertory was surprisingly limited. He never performed the Schumann or Dvořák concertos, and even the violin concerto of Brahms, who was his lifelong friend, he only played a half dozen times.
Jerry: You refer to the work as being virtuosic, yet not idiomatic to the violin or particularly violinistic. Still playing the devil’s advocate here, isn’t this just another way of saying it’s awkward, clumsy, and ungainly? Keep in mind that I’m coming at this from the vantage point of a listener, not a performer.
Elmar: There is repertoire that many composers have written in the past that is not necessarily idiomatic for the violin. There are unidiomatic things even in the Brahms violin concerto or in some of the Beethoven sonatas. This doesn’t mean that it’s clumsy or ungainly. It just means that the composer was after something musically and it’s your responsibility as a player to figure out the best way to do it convincingly.
Stewart: Elmar will of course be the one to comment authoritatively on this one, but for me it seems dangerous to equate the absence of idiomatic solo instrumental writing with a deficit in compositional content. It is true that often in this concerto the level of technical difficulty in the solo violin part is not always immediately apparent to the listener, but again if I think of a composer like Dvořák, who was an accomplished string player, I’m often struck by just how difficult the string parts are in his symphonies. Sometimes, too, I find that a composer such as Janáček is so obsessed with creating something so original that often the result on the printed page can seem so inept. In a similar way, I find that Schumann is breaking new ground in this concerto, and it’s quite understandable that at times he forgets the comfort level of the performer.
Jerry: I’ve heard a lot about the technical difficulties the piece poses for the violin, but what about for the orchestra? Unlike in the Beethoven and Brahms concertos, where the orchestra engages very actively and intimately with the soloist, Schumann’s concerto seems based more on the model of clear-cut separation of duties wherein big orchestral tuttis alternate with extended, elaborate passages for the solo violin during which the orchestra seems to do little but play long, sustained notes. In other words, it sounds like there’s not much in the way of contrapuntal interplay or dialog between the orchestra and the soloist. I don’t hear the kind of continuation or mirroring of the violin’s phrases in the orchestra that one hears throughout Brahms’s concerto, or the complementary filigree and subtle details of orchestration one hears throughout Tchaikovsky’s concerto.
Elmar: Yes, of course, you hear that kind of thing in this concerto but in a sense some of the most successful writing for a solo instrument often incorporates just this kind of interplay you are mentioning. I don’t want to make a comparison here between the two concertos because I personally think that the Beethoven concerto is the supreme violin concerto, but there is even an element of this kind of writing in the Beethoven; violin, tutti, violin, tutti, etc. Yes, of course, there is more contrapuntal writing but that same idea is not completely foreign here.
Stewart: I think that Schumann isn’t trying to write the kind of concerto you describe. For me, he is looking back to earlier classical models certainly in the first movement, and to some extent in the finale. His command of orchestration is striking with the constant division of the cellos into two parts, and long stretches when he doesn’t use the double basses at all. The restless and disquieting syncopated orchestral material that forms the accompaniment at the start of the slow movement returns in many guises and is even tucked away in the most unlikely spot in the finale. I firmly believe that Schumann knew exactly what he was doing compositionally. I think there is a tendency to glibly dismiss him at this point in his career as a raving lunatic when this clearly was far from the case. It’s all too easy to forget that subsequent to writing the violin concerto both his friend Brahms and his pupil Dietrich happily collaborated with him on the composition of a violin sonata as a gift for Joachim, with Schumann contributing a Romanze and finale. Even later that same year Schumann wrote another two movements, then assembled all four of his own movements entitling the resultant work “Sonata No. 3” This work, too, suffered a fate similar to that of the violin concerto and was published for the first time as recently as 1956. There are now a number of recordings of the Third Sonata which reveal a composer at the top of his game with no trace of failing ability. For too long, the musical world has been presented with an erroneous picture of Schumann in his final years, one which has falsely equated the composer’s undisputed emotional instability with some kind of intellectual diminishment which simply wasn’t the case—a perfect example of “swift to damn and slow to bless.”
Jerry: I’m sure, by now, you’ve concluded that I haven’t much faith in Schumann’s violin concerto—I’m inclined to think that Joachim and Brahms were right in their assessment—but I do have to say that of the performances of the piece I’ve heard, yours comes closest to convincing me that received wisdom may be wrong. What interpretive insights did you bring to bear on the score to achieve such persuasive results?
Elmar: First of all thank you for your very kind compliment. I took the viewpoint that all of these reservations you’ve referred to were not inherent qualities of the composer; after all, I consider Schumann to be a giant, a true genius. I think he wanted to say something with this piece, and I think that it was, and is, my responsibility as an interpreter to really make it happen. Yes, there are thorny things to figure out in this piece, but I think he meant them from a musical point of view. Even the second movement, which I strongly believe is one of the most beautiful second movements in the violin concerto repertoire, is thorny only because the cello line is all syncopated and how does one make a long continuous singing line out of the violin part amidst this?
Stewart: If we bring something special to this work then it’s a result of the love for and belief we both have in the piece. As with most highly personal romantic works, it’s essential to find just the right ground tempo for a whole movement, one that allows for subtle fluctuation but that retains the overall structural integrity. Particularly in the finale, we had a lot of discussion and experimentation to find a tempo that suited the orchestral polonaise rhythm, while allowing space to enable the virtuosic figurations in the solo violin part enough time to speak with clarity and comparative freedom. The syncopated orchestral writing in the second movement I believe should be played smoothly enough to beguile the listener into believing that it’s written on the beat while leaving a strange and seemingly inexplicable sense of unease. This movement is for me truly one of the most original and haunting musical creations of the 19th century.
Jerry: Enough said, I think, about Schumann and his violin concerto. I’ve long been a fan of yours, Elmar, and have a number of your wonderful recordings, including your performance of Samuel Barber’s Concerto with Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and your distinguished, perhaps definitive, 1995 recording of Lekeu’s Violin Sonata on Biddulph. But Stewart, I know nothing of the Atlantic Classical Orchestra, so tell me about it. I understand you’ve been music director and conductor of the orchestra since 2004.
Stewart: The ACO, which is based on the Atlantic coast of Florida, will celebrate its 25th birthday in 2014. I succeeded Andy McMullen, the orchestra’s visionary founder and artistic director nine years ago. For a few years, I combined leading the ACO with my position as music director of Florida Grand Opera, but now with the growth of the orchestra, ACO is the main focus of my musical activities. The orchestra is a Mozart-sized ensemble of 35 to 40 players drawn from the best of Florida’s musicians, plus a number of players from further afield—New York, Chicago, etc. The musicians enjoy and are very supportive of the orchestra’s various activities, which include a popular chamber music series. Despite the prevailing economic downturn, the ACO has been fortunate to have a positive and highly experienced board of directors who share my enthusiasm and vision for the orchestra’s future, and there are plans in hand to expand our concert activities throughout southern Florida, undertake touring further afield, and increase our recording activities.
Jerry: What sort of programming do you do?
Stewart: Our main repertory areas are the 18th and early 19th centuries, up to and including the symphonies of Mendelssohn. Then there is a jump to the 20th century, which is represented by a fair amount of American music, some British repertory (a little self-indulgence here!), plus, I try to introduce an element of contemporary music from Scandinavia and the Baltic States. The late 19th century represents a challenge for any orchestra of our size, but there are some smaller pieces that I actively seek out and perform. Recently too we have had success with the Fourth and First symphonies of Mahler in the new versions for smaller orchestra, wonderfully realized by Viennese musicologist Klaus Simon. Beginning with the 2013 season, we have instituted an exciting new multi-year series of commissions from American composers, and this is an initiative of which we are very proud and excited in equal measure.
Jerry: Is the Schumann your first commercial album with the orchestra? And what future recording projects that you can talk about might be in the works?
Stewart: While I’ve recorded with a number of other orchestras on a variety of labels, this was indeed the first time that ACO and I have recorded together, and it is the orchestra’s commercial recording debut. Our experience in making this recording with Artek was a very positive one, and we would very much like to continue and develop that relationship. The commission series I mentioned will be linked to a cycle of recordings, plus I have some additional plans to record the Mozart Piano Concerto K 491 (No. 24) with Tao Lin on a disc that includes a number of cadenzas written for the work by composers as diverse as Richard Strauss and Gabriel Fauré. I’d like to think that there might be an early 20th-century British music disc lurking in there somewhere too! The final track on the Schumann disc consists of a discussion on the music, and this is a feature of the recording that I’m keen to retain for future releases.
Jerry: Elmar, I’m not leaving you out of this. How did you come to be engaged by Stewart and the orchestra to perform the Schumann concerto, and how was the decision made to present this relatively unfamiliar work before a Boca Raton audience?
Elmar: The Schumann is a concerto which I grew up listening to, specifically, the wonderful Mercury recording with Szeryng and Doráti. It’s a beautiful recording and I came to love the piece because of that recording. I had played with Stewart before and felt very comfortable and aligned with his musicianship. The idea of doing a first recording with the orchestra came up and the Schumann just popped into my head, and as soon as Stewart heard it he was sold on the concerto. Performing it in Boca Raton, Florida, was the result of having a very fine hall at our disposal and the idea of an all-Schumann concert seemed like a natural evolution.
Jerry: The majority of your recordings are for Artek, so was the company onboard from the beginning to record this live performance?
Elmar: Yes, it was.
Jerry: Your tone on the recording comes across with a really ravishing—I’m tempted to say, seductive—sound. What is the instrument you play?
Elmar: I’m afraid I’m going to have to keep that a secret as I am a major supporter of the great contemporary violin makers of our time and own many of their instruments, but I also play and own examples of the great classical violin makers of the past, including my own very great “Stretton” Guarneri del Gesù. I don’t think people should be influenced by names when it comes to a great sounding violin.
Jerry: And what future recording projects that you can talk about might be on your plate, either with Stewart and the Atlantic Classical Orchestra or others?
Elmar: Well, my next project is a recording of baroque violin concertos with a group of very young musicians called Golden Rule, where I will play and conduct from the violin. Of course, I will conduct as minimally as possible in the tradition of the great ensembles like Orpheus, I Musici, etc. Then, this summer I will be recording a new concerto by Bernard Hoffer with the RTE in Dublin. There will also be more recordings with the Atlantic Classical Orchestra, not necessarily all with me of course.
Hermann and Dorothea Overture,
Overture, Scherzo, and Finale,
Violin Concerto in d,
Stewart Robertson, cond; Elmar Oliveira (vn); Atlantic Classical O
ARTEK 0059 (79:08) Live: Boca Raton, FL 3/5/2012
In March of last year, a Boca Raton, Florida, audience was treated to this unusual all-Schumann program—unusual in that the works performed are not that often heard on record let alone live in concert. The highlight was Schumann’s ill-fated Violin Concerto, about which I’ve already had my say in the above interview. I first came to know the piece from Henryk Szeryng’s Mercury recording with Antal Doráti conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. That recording, coupled with Szeryng’s Mendelssohn Concerto was made in 1964, and I acquired it as an LP. I didn’t think much of the Schumann concerto then, and after a parade of others that followed—including Thomas Zehetmair, Joshua Bell, and Christian Tetzlaff—I still don’t think much of the piece now. Or, I didn’t, until I heard Elmar Oliveira play it on this CD. I wasn’t just trying to flatter him in our interview when I said I found his performance of the work the most persuasive I’ve heard.
I think there are some artists who play a piece for the same reason that some mountaineers climb a particular mountain—because it’s there. Then there are those artists who really believe in a piece and commit themselves to it body, mind, and soul in an effort to bring it to life in a way that no one else has before. I can’t, and won’t, say that I’m ready to accord Schumann’s violin concerto a place on high among the Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Sibelius concertos, but I can, and will, say that Oliveira, Robertson, and the ACO’s performance of the score made more sense to me than it ever has, and has convinced me that the work deserves at least second-tier status among the likes of the Dvořák, Glazunov, Goldmark, and Bruch concertos—and that’s not bad company to be in. It’s certainly several steps above where Schumann’s concerto has long languished, and Oliveira and Robertson can take credit for its rehabilitation.
Schumann composed a trivet of concert overtures based on literary works. I use the word “trivet” rather than trilogy, because though the three scores were composed in the same year, 1851, they are not related, and they were assigned non-contiguous opus numbers. The first of them,
Braut von Messina
, op. 100, is based on Schiller’s tragic play of the same name. The second overture,
, op. 128, was inspired by Shakespeare’s tragedy. And last, the overture performed here,
Hermann and Dorothea
, op. 136, was inspired by Goethe’s epic poem telling of the tragic fate of two lovers during the French Revolution. Tchaikovsky, it seems, was not the first composer to use the
when he incorporated it into his
; Schumann uses it here to set the time and place for his score. In works such as these, the lines between concert overture and tone poem are blurred. The question is not merely academic: If an orchestral piece of music takes its inspiration from a literary work, and it purports to depict the work’s characters and/or to outline its story, how does that differ from a tone poem?
It’s a question that spills over into the other orchestral work on this program, the Overture, Scherzo, and Finale, op. 52. What is its musical taxonomy? Even Schumann didn’t seem to know, at one time referring to it as his “Symphony No. 2,” at another time as a “suite,” and at still another time as a “sinfonietta.” Reducing it to its component parts, one could say it’s a symphony without a slow movement. Perhaps because of confusion over its classification, the work was long neglected for most of the 19th century, but it has been dusted off in the 20th and taken up by a number of famous conductors in the modern recording era, from Kletzki, Schuricht, and Konwitschny, to Karajan, Solti, Sawallisch, Marriner, Gardiner, and Thielemann.
The two orchestral works are presented in highly polished performances by conductor Robertson and the Atlantic Classical Orchestra, but of course, it’s Schumann’s violin concerto with soloist Oliveira that is the main fare on the menu and the reason for you to purchase this disc. As mentioned earlier, a 20-minute bonus track at the end includes a fascinating conversation on the concerto between Oliveira and Robertson.