“This all led me to reading about her life, which evolved into me wanting to compose just like her.”
Stellaria Ciampolini Vukelić learned about Clara Wieck’s Piano Concerto around the same age as the composer herself began writing it – age 13. For reference, *I* Sarah Fritz didn’t learn of its existence until I was in my thirties or hear it first performed until age 37. So I asked Stellaria to share with us what it was like to hear the concerto live for the first time – around the age when the composer herself first performed it.
On Sunday the 6th November, I went to one of the most incredible concerts of my life at the Bern Casino. Walking into the hall, I was overcome with anticipation for the piece de resistance of this programme—Clara Schumann’s Piano Concert. A staple in her catalogue of compositions. A groundbreaking, unconventional, virtuosic piece that will emotionally transport you.
The story behind the concerto is as incredible as the piece itself. A thirteen year old Clara began sketching the first plans for the piece in 1832, finishing the first draft at the age of 14 in 1833, and premiering it herself at the age of 16 in 1835, under the baton of Felix Mendelssohn.
I have spent years of my life obsessed with Clara and the concerto holds a very special place in my heart. I first came across her works when I was 13 and soon became enraptured by her compositions. Her virtuosic piano writing, her awesome melodies, her striking harmonies. She was the first female composer I’d ever come across and I’d never really thought about the fact that we only learn about great male composers in school. This all led me to reading about her life, which evolved into me wanting to compose just like her (though who can ever replicate such compositional genius?). After finding out every possible detail about her life, I was struck by all the influence she’s had on music. How she’d single handedly ensured the legacy of Robert and Johannes.
Since then, I’ve discovered so much new music by women and as a confused GCSE student, I was inspired to take my music studies more seriously. Now, I’m preparing to apply to university as a music student. One of my essays for my music coursework is on the concerto and how Clara inspired future composers as well as her contemporaries.
Around 2 years ago, I got around to actually playing and studying her music properly. Naturally, I had to get my hands on a copy of the concerto (among other pieces). I now have a Breitkopf full score as well and the piano reduction which I’ve filled with analysis and other such markings.
Having spent literal hours with the concerto score, I spent a lot of time reflecting on the performance, both during and after. I’ve listened to all the recordings, my favourite being Ragna Schirmer’s performance with Ariane Matiakh and the Staatskapelle Halle, so hearing it live for the first time was something so distinctive. It’s difficult to put into words, but I’ve attempted to write every thought I could recollect down:
I must say, the conductor’s choice of phrasing in the opening wasn’t exactly to my disposition but when the soloist, Alice Burla entered with the cadenza-like octaves, my jaw dropped.
I knew instantly that this is what I have been waiting for my entire life.
She played the whole piece with such mastery, creating dazzling colour with the piano and perfectly emulating Clara’s seemingly improvisational piano writing as well as the virtuosity of the piece. Sitting in the stalls in the fourth row, I saw her hands effortlessly gliding up and down the keyboard. I particularly enjoyed her choice of completely slowing down the bar before the slow movement, which beautifully accentuated the decorative Neapolitan colouristation and added to the idea that this piece can be attributed to an improvisational style.
The slow movement brought me to tears. Burla’s phrasing and delicacy gave voice to the unusual yet stunning harmonies as well as the little chromatic inflictions here and there. And, as if the first half of the movement wasn’t phenomenal enough, the cello solo topped it all.
The 20-year-old principal cellist of the SJSO gave a tear-inducing performance, and the atmosphere in the hall completely shifted. The cello and piano were in perfect conjunction with each other. I felt transformed and peaceful, which was soon interrupted by Clara’s dramatic transition to the Finale.
As soon as the trumpets came in with their E octave, again, the energy completely shifted. The lively Rondo movement came to life, the piano octaves were back, virtuosity was at its finest. The entire range of the piano and orchestra, massive scale passages, rich harmonies, chromaticism and the driving force, held by Maestro Mario Venganzo, marked the ending of this masterwork.
The young Canadian pianist played the entire concerto to Clara’s taste, and I wouldn’t have wanted my first live experience of this piece any other way. After the concert, I was lucky enough to meet Alice, and she very kindly chatted to me a bit. She also commented on the improvisatory style of the piece and even mentioned that in that bar before the slow movement (which I thoroughly enjoyed), she had played a mini cadenza of sorts in previous performances. I hope that someone will lend this to their interpretation of the piece in the future.
Somehow, it has taken four years for me to find a live performance of her concerto that I can attend, and I think it’s the wait that made this evening so memorable.
Spending so many years listening to recordings of the piece, I never got the opportunity to really appreciate its delicacy. Hearing it live lends a whole new dimension that just cannot be heard through speakers or a pair of headphones. I heard new details that I’ve never picked up on before (not even with the score!). When you keep listening to the same three recordings, you become accustomed to those versions, and I now find it so limiting.
I want to hear it differently every time I listen to it. There’s no going back, and I earnestly hope that Clara’s concerto is programmed more regularly.
You can follow Stellaria Ciampolini Vukelić on Twitter and wish them well in their future music studies.
More posts on Clara Wieck-Schumann’s Piano Concerto…
New York Times article: Clara Schumann and Florence Price Get Their Due at Carnegie Hall