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Emotion and Intellect: Music of Robert Schumann and Max Reger

New York
Tenri Cultural Institute
11/10/2017 -  
Robert Schumann: 5 Pieces in Folk Style, opus 102 – Violin Sonata No. 3 in A minor, opus posth.
Max Reger (1873-1916): Clarinet Sonata in A flat Major, opus 49 No. 1 – Tarantella in G minor – Albumblatt in E flat Major

Charles Neidich (clarinet), Mariko Furukawa (piano)

M. Furukawa, C. Neidich

In the New York musical scene, the name Charles Neidich seems almost synonymous with the clarinet. He is indeed a superb exponent of this instrument, and in addition to being one of the most active players around, he is also a well-known authority on historically informed performances (such as when he plays a specially constructed instrument). In addition, Mr. Neidich has set about to enlarge the existing repertoire for the clarinet; his last recital being an example of this attempt. And he is also a great advocate for music of our time; his next concert on December 16 will be devoted to works of Elliott Carter, whose music he has championed for decades.

This season he has undertaken the task of presenting a series of five recitals at the Tenri Cultural Institute, during which he will perform some rarely heard repertory. I was able to attend his second recital on November 10. Tenri is a space ideal for the intimate character of chamber music as the audience is seated surrounding the performers. In Mr. Neidich’s case, he seems to diminish the distance even more by addressing his listeners directly and offering some commentary on the works being performed. He started this recital with a short introduction explaining the rationale of his programming.

The program was interestingly devised by combining original works for clarinet and piano by Max Reger with those of Robert Schumann, the latter being transcriptions of his composition for cello and violin. With Schumann, such arrangements are quite often utilized: his own clarinet Fantasy Pieces Op. 73 are often performed by cellists and Romances Op. 94 for oboe and piano are frequently played by violinists or violists; however, I have never heard the Five Pieces in Folk Style performed by any instrument other than cello. It seems to me that the idea of playing works on an instrument other than the one intended by the composer is meant to show a different valor, and if one is to lose some character from the original instrument, it is compensated for by the character of another: such is the case of the Brahms Sonatas for Piano and Clarinet that definitely gain something when played on viola. As for the Schumann transcription we heard from Mr. Neidich (he didn’t claim authorship of this arrangement), I thought it was only partially successful. In too many places even a superb instrumentalist like Mr. Neidich was not able to hide a little discomfort in the solo part. He was able to create a sound of ethereal beauty and some of his vibrato-less moments were breathtaking. The Lullaby (No. 2 Langsam) was one such example, though the No. 3, closest in style to a folksong with its trembling, improvisatory character and lack of steady rhythmic structure also worked well for clarinet. In the No. 5 Stark und markirt, I missed the double stopping of the cello which clearly prefigures Schumann’s Cello Concerto.

Mr. Neidich indicated in his pre-concert talk that Reger’s music was misunderstood during his lifetime, and it is not difficult to recognize why it was not universally accepted. He created his own highly personal, dense and ambiguous harmonic language that, while being tonal, often defies easily recognizable tonality. His treatment of thematic material is also unusual: there are moments when it sounds almost like early Richard Strauss, but without easily defined melodies. It that sense Reger could be considered a twentieth-century composer, even though the sonata we heard was written in the year 1900. The composer admitted that when writing his two clarinet sonatas Op. 49 he was influenced by the clarinet sonatas of Brahms. This influence is most visibly demonstrated in the four movement design but becomes especially noticeable in the character of the composition. It is apparent in the second movement Vivace and third movement Larghetto, both of which are similar in character to corresponding movements of Brahms’s Sonata in F minor.

In the second half of the recital Mr. Neidich came back again to the music of Reger, but this time presenting two short works: the Tarantella and Albumblatt. Whereas the lovely Albumblatt in E-flat Major sounded quite Schumannesque, the preceding Tarantella brought to mind dancers with a rather limited ability of movement, or a beer-hall tarantella. I thought it might have been better to perform these works as encores.

Throughout the sonata and the miniatures of Reger, Mr. Neidich demonstrated his typical stunning sound, superbly impressive breath control, and masterly phrasing. One must not forget to mention that he was more than ably partnered by his excellent pianist Ms. Furukawa: a partner that was at the same time sensitive and assertive, who played with a round, warm sound and technical assurance. Though oftentimes the Reger selections sounded like works where the clarinet has a leading role, the piano part is immensely difficult and far from subordinate. Mr. Neidich was fortunate to have her as his performing partner. I very much admired that in her playing one felt no deference, nor did she project an unwelcome image of an accompanist.

The musical community should be grateful to Mr. Neidich for searching out and extending repertory for the clarinet even if, as this last recital demonstrated, not all efforts are equally rewarding and successful. The Sonata No. 3 in A minor by Schumann had a rather unusual gestation: though written about the same time as his late Violin Concerto—and there are more than a few similarities between those two works—it was not published owing to Clara Schumann’s reluctance. Of the four movements, two of them (the Intermezzo and Finale) were written first as a part of the so-called FAE Sonata, written by Schumann, his student Albert Dietrich, and his friend, the young Johannes Brahms and dedicated to one of the greatest violinists of the era, Joseph Joachim. Later Schumann decided to enlarge the work and created a third sonata, which was not published until 1956. Even the intended order of the movements was not known, for the Intermezzo and Finale were left as separate autographs. The work often seems tormented and angular, and its melodies frequently meander, one of the similarities it shares with the Violin Concerto. Especially in the Finale there does not seem to be much feeling of cohesiveness. Where possible Mr. Neidich caressed the phrases, subtly colored them, and delivered emotional intensity; in his case it was as almost always deeply expressive playing. As I said, when it worked, the clarinet acquitted itself nicely, such as in the lyrical Intermezzo, a gorgeous encore, or in the angular, rustic Scherzo. But I am afraid that in the Finale—composed before the onset of mental illness that caused the composer’s premature demise—the violin textures and figuration taxed even such a formidable player as Mr. Neidich. The final movement’s idiom simply does not lend itself to clarinet playing. It was a valiant attempt and an important chance to hear a rarely performed sonata, but I don’t think it is going to enrich echt-clarinet repertory.

The WA concert series at the Tenri Cultural Institute sets itself apart from other venues by offering the concert-goers not only food for thought: admission included delicacies prepared by Ayako Oshima—gourmet chef and wife of Mr. Neidich—as well as a very decent selection of wines. Before the concert and during the intermission the music lovers are treated to drinks, chips and cheeses, but after the concert come trays of specialties and a chance to meet the artists. Can one ask for more? By the way, Mr. Neidich is not only one of the foremost virtuosos of his instrument—that has been established already a long ago—but also one of the nicest performers around: his way of addressing the audience is not only informative but as friendly as if he were hosting all of us in his residence and showing us precious objects in his collection.

The WA Concert Series continues at the Tenri Cultural Institute on December 16, 2017 at 7:30 pm, with a program celebrating the composer Elliott Carter. Additional performances in this series will take place on March 11 and May 4, 2018.

Roman Markowicz



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