Friday’s Library of Congress concert celebrating Schumann’s 200th birthday, organized by pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, let Schumann’s music advocate for her. The argument was sound.
Schumann (1819-1896) was one of 19th-century Europe’s most important musicians. She was not only a composer but also a virtuoso prodigy whose pianism was lauded by her contemporaries. Piano works revealed Schumann as a quick, curious student of the latest trends. The Witches’ Sabbath impromptu from her Op. 5, “Quatre Pièces Caractéristiques” — written while she was still in her teens — could have passed for Liszt, the nocturne and mazurka from her Op. 6, “Soirées Musicales,” for Chopin; except that Schumann’s own, forthright musical personality shines through, confident ideas unspooled with clarity.
In later works — the Op. 20 variations on one of her husband’s themes, the Op. 21 romances — the result was concentrated moods: poignant or fantastic. McDermott’s playing balanced spine and heart, a crisp, sometimes steely touch made resonant with generous pedal.
A selection of six lieder — sung with big, filigree-gold tone by soprano Susanna Phillips, McDermott providing sympathetic accompaniment — further underlined Schumann’s craft. The surface simplicity of her setting of Rückert’s “Liebst du um Schönheit” concealed assured contrapuntal scaffolding. The way “Geheimes Flüstern hier und dort” smoothly moved from surprise to surprise bespoke her control over voice-leading and harmony.
To complete the portrait, McDermott was joined by her sisters for Schumann’s chamber music. Another set of romances, Op. 22, with violinist Kerry McDermott, showcased sure-footed, intimate charm. Cellist Maureen McDermott completed the ensemble for a dramatic reading of the Op. 17 piano trio, a compact exercise in more extended forms.
The trio seems to foreshadow larger efforts that never arrived. Schumann, burdened with child-rearing while maintaining a busy concert career after Robert’s death, published only 23 works, with just a handful more emerging after she died. Perhaps a larger output might have meant a more prominent place in the canon, but that falls into the same old suspect criteria for musical greatness. Clara Schumann left us the music that she did. What she left is pretty great.