As a tale of love conquering all, then being conquered in turn by madness, and with the incursion of a third party to form the most chaste love-triangle in history, the saga of Robert Schumann, Clara Wieck, and Johannes Brahms is uniquely fertile soil for drama.
So much so, that it’s put some of the most interesting aspects of Schumann into the shade. It’s generally forgotten, for example, that he was also a music critic of seminal importance, who helped prepare the ground for some of the nineteenth century’s greatest music. The way his very individual musical philosophy – imbued with literary ideas about duality – seamlessly developed first into his piano masterpieces, and then into bipolar madness, still awaits proper analysis.
But if we’re stuck with the Robert-Clara-Johannes story – and it’s been many times told – there’s no better version than the one devised and presented by pianist Lucy Parham. Premiered at the Wigmore Hall eight years ago, and since performed by droves of actors all over the world, ‘Beloved Clara’ has now triumphantly come full circle, with Gabrielle Drake and Martin Jarvis as actor-narrators, and Parham once more at the keyboard.
In a sense, this is a play which must have written itself: the house-diaries which the Schumanns faithfully kept - and the letters they wrote, later added to by those from Brahms – are so vivid and eloquent that judicious scissors-and-pasting is all that is required. As the most Protean audio-book reader in the business, Jarvis had no trouble differentiating Schumann and Brahms, while Drake made a persuasive Clara. Parham may not be a front-rank virtuoso, but her playing was clean and assured, and ably brought out the character of everything she played.
The tremulous excitement of the newly-weds was echoed by a musical sequence drawn from the Fantasiestucke, Davidsbundler, and Schumann’s second sonata, with Mendelssohn’s ‘Spring Song’ adding its colour. The alternation between Schumann’s pieces and Brahms’s both intensified the drama, and also served to highlight how closely related their styles were, and how deeply unlike au fond: Schumann’s free-ranging fancy versus Brahms’s sinewy intellectual control. Brahms’s own commentary made his late Intermezzo Op 119 No 1 seem even more jewel-like than usual; Schumann’s demise was portrayed with immense pathos. A lovely entertainment, flawlessly performed.