Album Leaves: Robert And Clara Schumann, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

The lifelong love affair between Robert and Clara Schumann is an absolute gift to playmakers, and to all those who would marry words and music in one enchanted evening. When the lights went up at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the stage was like an open doll's house, with a Steinway in a chamber set-up on the left, another Steinway in the middle, and on the right a little drawing-room with a chair, a vase of flowers on a table, and a candle.

Enter the pianist Imogen Cooper, mezzo Bernarda Fink with pianist Roger Vignoles, the Kungsbacka Piano Trio, and narrator Juliet Stevenson, who lights the candle as Cooper launches splashily into the Preamble from Schumann's Carnaval. Then Stevenson reads a letter to Clara from Robert. The couple have been chastely infatuated since they first set eyes on each other - he was 18, she was the nine-year-old daughter of his piano professor - and the letter rings with noble ardour.

Cooper plays another piece from Carnaval, then Stevenson transmogrifies herself into the girlish Clara to deliver a starstruck reply.

It becomes clear that we are going to get the whole arc of their relationship, from youthful anticipation, to familial fulfilment, to Robert's tragic disintegration in an asylum: his music will pace the story. It's also clear that in Stevenson we have the perfect narrator: the gifts that this consummate actress brings to the reading of audio-books are perfectly deployed here.

The evening has been conceived as an intimate soirée, with readings and music thickly interwoven, but never in each other's way. For Robert Schumann, whose inner and outer worlds were inextricably intertwined, and whose prose, poetry, and music were one indivisible thing, this approach works perfectly. "It seemed as though flowers and gods were coming out of my fingers," he wrote of an amorous musical evening with his betrothed.

Hard to single out any performance in this seamless tissue: Cooper's playing, Fink's singing, and the Kungsbacka's ensemble work are all faithful to the spirit of the enterprise. If there is a star, it's Stevenson, whose subtle colouring of voice gives us a gallery of characters and moods.

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