The story behind the music

Entertainment: When pianist Ruth Laredo performs, she lets the audience in on the background, some of it scandalous, in classical music.

April 03, 2000|By Daniel Schlosberg | Daniel Schlosberg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Did Clara Schumann have an affair with Johannes Brahms?

Acclaimed pianist Ruth Laredo thinks she knows the answer, although other experts vigorously disagree.

"They had a torrid love affair," Laredo said. "There's no way they couldn't have."

It's one of the topics she'll address in her "concert with commentary" Friday night at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Laredo started giving this type of recital, which mixes performance with anecdotes about the composers' lives, at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1980. Two decades later, she still finds these evenings rewarding for herself and the audience.

"Please, please, don't call it a `lecture recital,' " she said. "It's much friendlier than something you'd receive from a musicologist. The point of these recitals is to make the composers' lives more personal and relevant for the audience."

The concert will focus on Romantic masterworks by Felix Mendelssohn, Robert and Clara Schumann, Frederic Chopin and Johannes Brahms. The relationships among members of this group of musical geniuses form a rich and intricate web:

Mendelssohn was a lifelong friend of the Schumanns and conducted first performances of works by both husband and wife.

Robert Schumann, besides being the most romantic of his generation of German composers, was also a journalist who championed Chopin and Brahms long before either achieved much fame.

And Robert and Clara were one of the most famous married couples of their day. Laredo's program will explore their relationship, which had a difficult beginning and a tragic ending. Clara's father vehemently opposed the match, but the couple defied his wishes and married anyway.

Years later, Robert went insane and died in a lunatic asylum.

It's perhaps not surprising that the intensity of the Schumanns' relationship is reflected in Robert's compositions.

Friday's concert will feature a prime example of such soul-painting, the eight "Fantasy Pieces," Op. 12, which were written during the long battle with Clara's father.

Regarding the last piece of the set, titled, "End of the Song," Robert wrote to Clara:

"I meant, now, at the end, for all to resolve in a merry wedding, but in the final bars, the painful longing for you returned, and now it sounds like the intermingling of wedding and dying."

Laredo will also feature a rarely performed composition by Clara Schumann -- her Romance, Op. 11 which she, too, dedicated to her spouse. Although Clara Schumann always has been known more as a pianist than composer, Laredo defends her pieces.

"Clara was not Robert or Brahms, yet she had her own definite gift," Laredo said.

But perhaps no relationship has generated as much speculation and debate as the exact nature of the bond between Brahms and Clara Schumann, who lived together after Robert Schumann entered the asylum.

Exhibit A

Clara Schumann and Brahms were intimate friends for 40 years, Laredo said, and it's only logical to conclude that they consummated their relationship at some point.

As evidence of the intensity of their attachment, she cites a letter that Clara Schumann wrote to her friend Joseph Joachim after a separation from Brahms. "My heart bled," Clara wrote.

Perhaps the most interesting, yet elusive, evidence for how Brahms felt about Clara lies in the music itself. Among other works, he dedicated to her the Capriccio, Op. 76, No. 1, one of three short Brahms pieces Laredo will feature on her program. It is a romantic and agitated miniature that yields to a beautiful serenity.

Laredo isn't alone in thinking that the pair were more than just friends.

In his 1997 biography of Brahms, Jan Swafford hinted that perhaps "there had been some sweet dalliance" between the two.

But many experts strongly disagree.

"It is fairly certain that the relation between Johannes and Clara remained platonic," the pianist and musicologist Charles Rosen wrote in the Oct. 22, 1998, issue of the New York Review of Books. "Brahms' attachment to the older Clara was as much worshipful as passionate, although she drove all thought of other women from his mind."

Brilliant career

But while some may fault Laredo's historical analyses, her musicianship isn't in doubt.

Born in Detroit in 1937, Laredo studied under the legendary Rudolph Serkin at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music. At one time married to the violinist Jaime Laredo, she has enjoyed a successful career as a soloist, chamber musician and teacher and now is based in New York.

She was the first person ever to record the complete solo works of Rachmaninov, and one of only a handful to set to disc all 10 sonatas by the eccentric Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. Laredo's latest project, a recording of the three Brahms Piano Quartets performed with members of the Shanghai Quartet, will be released in May.

Friday's concert is the third of four piano recitals presented this year by the Concert Society of Maryland in celebration of the 300th anniversary of the invention of the piano. (Bartolommeo Cristofori is thought to have constructed the first keyboard instruments that included hammers as part of the instrument's action around 1700.)

The final concert of the series will be performed on April 24 by Andre Watts and will be devoted to Frederic Chopin.

But you don't have to wait until later this month to hear expertly played Chopin. Laredo will conclude Friday's concert with one of the Polish composer's masterpieces, his 2nd Piano Sonata in B flat minor, also known as the "Funeral March" Sonata.

Ruth Laredo

When: 8 p.m. Friday, April 7

Where: University of Maryland, College Park's Inn and Conference Center at University Boulevard and Adelphi Road

Tickets: $18 for adults; $15.50 for senior citizens and $5 for students

Call: 301-405-7847

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