Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129
Related Artists/CompaniesRobert Schumann
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Steven Isserlis, cello, plays Schumann - Feb. 6 - 8, 2014
Steven Isserlis, renowned for "the unrivaled intensity of his playing" (The Guardian), shines in Schumann's Cello Concerto on a program led by Christoph Eschenbach that also includes the Brahms/Schoenberg Piano Quartet and Haydn's Symphony No. 72.
About the Work
Despite Schumann's promising entry into the musical life of Düsseldorf, it was not long before things turned sour. His fragile mental health, his ineptitude as a conductor and his frequent irritability created a rift with the musicians, and the orchestra's governing body presented him with the suggestion that, perhaps, his time would better be devoted entirely to composition. Schumann, increasingly unstable though at first determined to stay, complained to his wife, Clara, that he was being cruelly treated. Proceedings were begun by the orchestra committee to relieve him of his position, but his resignation in 1853 ended the matter. By early the next year, Schumann's reason had completely given way. On February 27th, he tried to drown himself in the Rhine, and a week later he was committed to the asylum in Endenich, where he lingered with fleeting moments of sanity for nearly two-and-a-half years. His faithful Clara was there with him when he died on July 29, 1856, at the age of 46.
The Cello Concerto was a product of Schumann's first, happy months in Düsseldorf. Though it came near the end of his career, it is the result of a special affection he harbored for the cello throughout his life. When a finger injury in 1832 ended his piano playing, he dabbled for a short time with the cello as a musical outlet. Though he never mastered the instrument, his familiarity with it is evident in this Concerto. "Last month," Clara wrote in her diary on November 16, 1850, "Robert composed a concerto for the violoncello that pleased me very much. It appears to be written in the true violoncello style." This work, like the earlier Piano Concerto, eschews the flashing pyrotechnics of the traditional 19th-century virtuoso concerto in favor of a musical language richer and more subtle in its emotional expression. ("I cannot write a concerto for the virtuosos. I must try for something else," he vowed early in his career.) Schumann's Cello Concerto is among the most popular pieces in the literature for that instrument. Mstislav Rostropovich claimed that he enjoyed playing it more than any other cello concerto. And the legendary cellist Pablo Casals called it "one of the finest works one could wish to hear -- sublime music from beginning to end."
Schumann composed the Concerto's three movements to be played without pause. This technical device not only helped to unify the work into a single span of music from its beginning to its end, but also served to curtail the applause which 19th-century audiences dispensed after every movement, a custom Schumann abhorred because it destroyed the work's carefully calculated mood. The Concerto's first two movements are expressive and largely contemplative, "exactly those qualities of the beloved enthusiastic dreamer whom we know as Schumann," wrote the eminent English musicologist Sir Donald Tovey. The finale brings to the work a playful virtuosic verve which concludes the piece with a flurry of high spirits.
The first movement is a nearly seamless sonata form that looks forward to the monolithic structures of Brahms' opening movements. After three prefatory woodwind chords, the first theme is presented by the soloist above an undulating accompaniment. Following an orchestral interlude, the more animated second theme appears. The movement's central portion is occupied by one of Schumann's best and most compact developments, which utilizes the exposition's themes and a new, crisply rhythmic motive assigned to the cello's low register. The first and second themes return in the recapitulation to round out the movement.
The nocturnal slow movement, a wistful romanza in three-part form (A-B-A), follows without pause. Particularly touching here is the opening strain, a pastoral duet for the soloist and the principal cellist of the orchestra. A transition enlivened by an increasingly quick tempo leads to the finale, whose form combines elements of sonata and rondo. Much of this movement's thematic material springs from its bounding opening motive. A flourish of arpeggios sweeping though the cello's entire range brings this splendid Concerto to a close.
Clara Schumann's evaluation of this work, written on October 11, 1851, a year after it was composed, is still valid today. "I have played Robert's Violoncello Concerto again and thus procured for myself a truly musical and happy hour," she recounted. "The romantic quality, the flight, the freshness and the humor, and also the highly interesting interweaving of cello and orchestra are, indeed, wholly ravishing -- and what euphony and what sentiment are in all those melodic passages!"