Sunday, May 24, 2020

When Schumann isn't what we thought

Hmm, the Schumann Cello Concerto - gloomy old thing, isn't it? The Eeyore of the cello concerto repertoire, shadowy and a bit of a grump? For music coming from a composer like Schumann, though - one filled with fizzing, propulsive joys that scarcely touch the ground - this not-wholly-uncommon type of assessment should probably set alarm bells ringing.

Even if finding the truth does not (unlike the Violin Concerto) involve spirit messengers and a race against the Third Reich, the manuscript has been sitting apparently unexplored in Poland for many a long year, as cellist Josephine Knight discovered when she began delving into the piece. The detail she found has completely transformed the work's character, in her view. Here she tells us how.

First, it's not actually a concerto at all...

Josephine Knight writes:

A few years ago, while practising for a tour of Schumann’s Concertoin Germany, I became deeply suspicious of various scores and cello parts I had in my possession. All the editions I had available were hugely cluttered with markings and bowings and not one edition corresponded to another. You get a feel for when bowings are added and are not original! But how could I possibly perform this piece without knowing what Schumann had actually intended? I found it of mounting importance to locate the autograph so that I could see for myself.

My search for the autograph score took me to the Biblioteka Jagiellońska in Kraków, Poland, and to Bergamo, Italy, to study extra material and fill in the missing pieces. When I arrived in Kraków, I was shocked to find that almost no one had looked at it at all! The first thing I noticed was that Schumann had clearly named the piece Concertstück für Violoncell mit Begleitung des Orchesters. He had actually written a ‘Concert piece for cello with orchestral accompaniment’, not a Concerto.

Still, I was never expecting that when I opened the autograph score fully, I would find hundreds of differences, including misplaced accents, incorrect dynamics, different notes and more! Between the autograph and the editions I had been playing from, there was constant cutting of original phrasing, created by overuse of extra bows to ease technical challenges, disrupting Schumann’s intended long, sweeping lines. Later editions had added numerous lines over notes which Schumann never used in his notation.

The most prominent change occurs in the grand finale of the third movement. Here, instead of an arpeggiated ascending triplet figure, Schumann adds a virtuosic flourishing scale from the lowest A on the C string to the highest A in the top register of the cello, before landing finally on the tonic, on a low A. This is much trickier for the performer and the conductor to execute, but it adds something extra and unpredictable to this dramatic finale.

By themselves, these changes may seem small, but together they completely alter the nature of the piece. How could this have happened? I delved into the history of the piece. Schumann wrote his Concertoin the autumn of 1850, soon after the Schumann family had moved to Düsseldorf, and he appears to have completed it in just two weeks. It came at the tail end of some of Schumann’s most prolific years and happier times, and Schumann was in good health and mentally stable when he composed this work. Although he wrote the work with no cellist in mind, he did give the piece to a cellist in Frankfurt – Robert Emil Bochmul – in the hope that he would perform it. 

Bochmul was entrusted with the responsibility for the technical aspect (bowings and fingerings) of the solo part, and made many changes and ‘suggestions’. Perhaps he had good intentions, but reading letters between the pair, I’ve gathered Schumann found the ‘improvements’ irritating and they were mostly ignored. Following various excuses, a performance never materialised. The Concertoseems to have remained unperformed owing to Schumann’s death in 1856, until Ludwig Ebert played it in 1860, first at Oldenburg on 23 April and later at the Leipzig Conservatoire on 6 September. 

Schumann’s Concertowas the first nineteenth-century cello concerto to achieve classic status, but it was slow in establishing itself. Alfredo Piatti gave the British premiere in London in April 1866, but the work seems to have lacked an immediate advocate. It was not heard again in England until 1880, when at the Crystal Palace, London on 6 March it was played by Robert Hausmann, and later at a Philharmonic Society concert on 24 March 1892 when the soloist was the Belgian cellist Ernest de Munck. In fact, until Pablo Casals took it up, it had failed to achieve universal recognition. 

Bochmul was the first to tamper with the piece, but future generations of performers must have introduced bowings and significant changes soon diluting the original conception of the work beyond recognition. Why don’t we take their word for it? The Concertowas first published by Breitkopf & Härtel in 1854, the year that Schumann’s illness took hold, resulting in his hallucinations and subsequent suicide attempt. But I found Schumann’s markings to be clear and precise. He was not in a state of mental turmoil while composing the work. On the contrary, he had great clarity of mind, given that it took only two weeks to complete. 

I found that incorporating the changes enabled the piece to take on a completely different character. It is lighter and happier, even “jolly”, as Schumann described the work to Breitkopf & Härtel. When you eliminate the overuse of accents and chopped phrasing, the piece becomes beautifully lyrical. I hope that my recording will bring something new and fresh to this well-loved work. I’ve also created a new edition with Edition Peters, one which aims to strip the work back to Schumann’s original conception.My ultimate wish is to give the performer both access to and confidence that they are playing from an edition which is a true representation of the piece in its original form, no matter how much more difficult this might be.

Josephine Knight’s new recording of the Schumann Cello Concertowith the Royal Northern Sinfonia is available now on Dutton: 
Her new edition will soon be published by Edition Peters.