Schumann & Brahms festival, RNCM, Manchester

3.00

A rare outing for the piano that had once belonged to Clara Schumann was one of the star attractions of an engaging four-day celebration of the husband-and-wife-and-Brahms trio of composers at the Royal Northern College of Music, in Manchester.

A rare outing for the piano that had once belonged to Clara Schumann was one of the star attractions of an engaging four-day celebration of the husband-and-wife-and-Brahms trio of composers at the Royal Northern College of Music, in Manchester. Preserved in Donegal beneath a bedspread for most of the past century, it had been bought from Clara in the 1860s, and it still sounds in remarkably mellow and, perhaps surprisingly, modern shape, at least when played so sympathetically by David Owen Norris.

It was built for Clara Wieck by the firm of her piano-teacher father and his brother, in the sunnier days - presumably the 1830s - before the breakdown of her relationship with the jealous and intransigent Friedrich Wieck, over her involvement with her future husband, the allegedly unreliable young composer Robert Schumann.

I actually stroked its keys, which may not greatly improve my playing but at least gives me a tiny link to an era of unsurpassed inventive pianistic genius. For anyone who has ever wondered about the idiosyncratic skills required to convey Robert Schumann's piano-writing successfully, the answers were there in a selection of songs and pieces by Robert, Clara and Brahms performed on this unique instrument.

"A woman must not wish to compose - there never was one able to do it," Clara said dutifully. Yet she could and did, admitting that "composing gives me great pleasure". The history behind her Romances, Op 21, created for Brahms on his 22nd birthday, later dedicated to Robert Schumann, and then re-dedicated to Brahms in the year before her husband's death in an asylum, could fuel endless speculation by amateur psychologists. But more important is their romantic inspiration and poetic imagination, their harmonic originality and tuneful inventiveness. As a renowned pianist herself, Clara clearly knew how to write well for her own instrument in depth of tone, finely balanced texture and those cantabile melodies shared between the hands.

Owen Norris proved himself as adaptable as ever in the Romances, in three songs Clara published with Robert, and in Ihr Bildnis, which she wrote for him in 1840, the year they finally married and in which he was joyfully inspired to compose as many as 125 songs.

The youthful singer of these expressions of warm sentiment was the soprano Amanda Pitt, who also gamely stepped in for Catherine Bott in Robert Schumann's song-cycle Frauenliebe und Leben. Its patriarchal view of women - focusing on a wife's adoration for her husband of higher birth, older years and greater authority, and her girlish hopes, joys, fears and sorrows - has engendered much heated discussion. Pitt's simple and direct interpretation was wonderfully free from the cloying sentimentality or mawkish coyness that has ruined performances by many more illustrious singers.

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