Elgin Symphony serves up intriguing rarity with Clara Schumann concerto

Sun Jan 09, 2022 at 10:20 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Completed at age 16, Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor was performed by the Elgin Symphony Orchestra Saturday night.

The Elgin Symphony Orchestra is putting a nicely subversive spin on standard programming this weekend with the Schumann Piano Concerto—no, not that one. Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor was performed Saturday night at Hemmens Cultural Center by soloist Schaghajegh Nosrati with Lidiya Yankovskaya on the podium. The program will be repeated Sunday afternoon. 

It bears repeating that Clara Wieck had a significant reputation as a pianist long before she met and married Robert Schumann. She played her first public concert at age 9 and was not only one of the rising keyboard prodigies of her era but a burgeoning composer as well.

She wrote a concerto movement at age 13, which she performed several times. That would later become the finale of her Concerto in A minor, when she completed two more movements and premiered the entire work at age 16 in Leipzig in 1835.

While she continued to compose, Clara gave up her own efforts after she married Robert–in part feeling that he was by far the greater creative talent as well as adhering to the regrettable customs of the day that a wife‘s career should take second place to that of her husband.  As Yankovskaya said in her brief introduction, it’s unfortunate that Clara did not continue with her composing and it would indeed be fascinating to see how Clara’s composition might have developed.

That said, Clara’s Concerto in A minor—the same key as Robert’s work—is not quite an undiscovered masterpiece. There is a heavy debt to Chopin in its stately themes and filigree-style keyboard writing and one doesn’t get the sense of a strong individual voice—unsurprising for a teenage composer, even one as gifted as Clara.

Still, it’s an impressive achievement and an undeniably intriguing historic curio. Kudos to the ESO and the artists involved for bringing this enterprising programming to local audiences.

Schaghajegh Nosrati was the soloist in Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto.

Schaghajegh Nosrati showed she has the technical chops to handle the concerto’s dizzying blizzard of notes and virtuosic volleys. What was lacking was the charm necessary to make a stronger overall case for the piece. Nosrati played mostly with an unvaried literal quality, where a more flexible pulse and sense of expressive light and shade could have been more convincing.

The central Romanze segues into a lilting duet for solo cello and piano, and one wished that Nosrati had brought some of the lyric fantasy to the music as did ESO principal cello Matthew Agnew.  And while the pianist tackled the bravura writing of the finale with impressive accuracy, the effect was strangely unexciting, with the music taken at a safety-first tempo that leaned more towards the “non troppo” than the “Allegro.”

Lidiya Yankovskaya

Yankovskaya directed the score deftly and alertly coordinated the quicksilver back and forth between soloist and orchestra. In a score they have never played before and likely never will again, the ESO musicians acquitted themselves well.

One looked forward to seeing what Yankovskaya—music director of Chicago Opera Theater—might bring to a  cornerstone orchestral work like Brahms’ Symphony No. 2. Yet despite mostly fine playing by the Elgin musicians, the performance was baffling at best.

Saturday’s Brahms performance was well balanced and professionally dispatched under Yankovskaya’s direction. It was also the fastest Brahms Second this listener has ever experienced, with fleet tempos in all four movements. It felt as if Yankovskaya wanted to shear off any sense of Germanic heaviness and undue sentiment from this rich, Romantic canvas.

That may have worked but in her lean, technocratic race thru the music, Yankovskaya didn’t provide anything else in its place. Everything was clean and well-coordinated but there was a jarring lack of warmth or empathy with the score. Key contrasts were ironed out, the range of dynamics was straitened and the range of expression even narrower. 

In the darkly ruminative depths of the Adagio, there was no sense that the music meant anything deeper than a rendering of the notes on the page. A myriad of phrasing and detailing beauties went for naught. The rustic charm of the Allegretto was nowhere in evidence and even the exhilarating finale felt superficial and unearned, lacking any cumulative payoff.  

This was not the fault of the Elgin Symphony musicians. As shown by their fresh and powerful Tchaikovsky Fifth under Anna Rakitina in November, these players showed they can deliver a top-level performance when led by a conductor who has something to say about the music.

The evening led off with the Overture to Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, which received fine playing by the ESO musicians. Here Yankovskaya seemed more in her element, bringing theatrical fervor to the storm-tossed main theme, poise to Senta’s hymn in the winds and jaunty swagger to the antic sailors’ tune.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday. Elginsymphony.org

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