MARK GRESHAM | 31 MAR 2021
The somewhat triangular relationship between Robert Schumann (1810-1856) Clara Wieck Schumann (1819-1896) and the younger Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) is one of the perennially intriguing stories of classical music’s Romantic era. It often gets played out in the programming of concert repertoire, as it did in Monday evening’s virtual concert by the Summit Piano Trio (violinist Helen Hwaya Kim, cellist Charae Krueger, and pianist Robert Henry), streamed from the Bailey Performing Arts Center on the Campus of Kennesaw State University.
Each is very active on KSU’s virtual stage. On February 14, Robert Henry played a Valentine’s Day solo recital which also drew its programming directly from the Schumann-Brahms-Schumann relationships. Helen Hwaya Kim and Charae Krueger were each most recently heard as soloists with the KSU Orchestra streamed last Wednesday, respectively performing works by Bach and Elgar. But the primary way these three musicians are heard together as the Summit Piano Trio, having played a dozen years together under that moniker as an ensemble-in-residence at KSU, where all are on the faculty of the Dr. Bobbie Bailey School of Music.
Interestingly, after a brief introduction by Dr. Henry, the musicians played the entire concert without pause, and without any video subtitles to label each piece or movement as it began. It was unapologetic music straight up, well played from its beginning to its end — at which point the three musicians stood and bowed to the camera before the KSU stream signed off. There was however a printable PDF booklet which served as a guide. Or you could just sit back and enjoy the music as itself without further explanation. That worked for me, though I already knew the program to be played.
Written in 1846, the Piano Trio in G minor, opus 17 was Clara Schumann only piano trio. It was completed during a difficult summer in Norderney, where they had gone to try to improve Robert’s serious health problems. While there, Clara suffered from miscarriage.
Although it was her first attempt at composing music for instruments other than the voice and piano, this sole Piano Trio is arguably the masterpiece among her compositions. An exceptional balance between the three instruments makes it clear that Clara had a great understanding of writing for these three instruments
There is a dramatic intensity to the openings of both the first and fourth movements, both in sonata form. The third movement is bittersweet in expression. Although it leans much upon its energy and chromatic harmonic development for its success, it was beautifully performed by Summit Trio and deserves to be programmed more often.
Within a year of Clara completing her Piano Trio, Robert composed his own first piano trio (in D minor, Op. 63). It was clearly influenced by Clara’s, sharing many similarities with hers. Their works were frequently paired at concerts. That was not the case in Monday’s concert. Instead, the Summit Trio followed with an astute choice by the other most important man in Clara’s life: the Piano Trio No. 3 in C minor, Op. 101 Johannes Brahms.
Brahms wrote it 40 years after Clara’s was completed, in the summer of 1886 while he was on holiday in Hofstetten, Switzerland, and premiered in December of that year by by the composer as pianist along with violinist Jenő Hubay and cellist David Popper.
Clara Schumann wrote in her diary about the Scherzo: “No other work of Johannes has so entirely transported me; so tender is the flow of the second movement which is wonderfully poetic. I am happier tonight than I have been for a long time.”
It was a time when Brahms was mat the peak of his creative powers, composing his Cello Sonata No. 2 (Op. 99) and his Violin Sonata No. 2 (Op. 100), and starting work on No. 3 (Op. 108), as well as a number of songs.
Like his sunny Second Violin Sonata, this third and final Piano Trio by Brahms is structurally compact – only half the length of his first one, and yet feels like an apotheosis of the Romantic piano trios.
The one-hour concert closed with a work by another composer connected to the Schumann-Brahms intrigues, the Serenade in E Major for Piano Trio by Theodor Kirchner (1823-1903).
Beginning in 1843, Kirchner was organist in Winterthur, Switzerland, a post he held for nearly 20 years, but during that time often traveled to Germany where he met and became friends with Robert and Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Clara wrote about Kirchner in her diary that “in his character there is no stability” but they had a discreet affair anyway early in the 1860s – so add one more line to the triangle.
As a composer, Kirchner’s compositional abilities widely respected (including by by Schumann, Brahms, Liszt, Wagner) but he had difficulty with writing large scale works, instead excelling at composing miniatures. His lyrical Serenade in E Major (1879) is one exquisitely gorgeous example of that. It made a great encore. ■