Before I saw this show I was doubtful that it would justify being reviewed as theatre. I was completely wrong. Lucy Parham’s take on the story of Clara Schumann, her husband Robert and their friend Johannes Brahms in their own words and music is simply another form of musical theatre: a very engaging one at that with strong, powerful poignant story telling. And for me – a regular reviewer of both theatre and classical music events - it was a dream gig: my two worlds happily slotting together like jigsaw pieces.
Clara Schumann was a child prodigy and an extraordinarily talented virtuoso pianist and 2019 marks the 200th anniversary of her birth. At 21, she married composer Robert Schumann against the wishes of her dicatorial father. They were very happy and seven children arrived within the next twelve years. The young Brahms, whose phenomenal talent they both recognised, became a close friend. Gradually Robert’s fragile medical health failed and he died in an asylum. After an initial estrangement for which no one knows the reason (did he propose and was refused?) Brahms and Clara remained close friends until her death in 1895.
Pianist and broadcaster, Lucy Parham (also a Guildhall alumna and professor of piano there) has used letters and diaries written by the Schumanns, their daughter Eugenie and Brahms to share the intricacies of these relationships. And the spoken words are interspersed with piano music mostly by the Schumanns and Brahms which she plays as part of the piece.
This show has been around since 2002 and Parham has done it with many well known actors. This time it was Simon Russell Beale (a Guildhall alumnus) and Harriet Walter and you can’t get much more theatrically upmarket than that. He has a knighthood and she’s a DBE for a start.
Sometimes they read words in role slipping occasionally into third person narration. Russell Beale is Robert Schumann and Brahms and Walter is Clara and Eugenie but there is never any confusion about who is speaking. Russell Beale finds the occasional moment of irony or humour and it profoundly moving as the elderly Brahms at Clara’s funeral. Walter is delightful as the girlish, newly wedded Clara, later in despair because she is not allowed to visit Robert in the asylum – and then ageing gracefully.
And underpinning all this is a magnificent piano recital by Lucy Parham ranging from Mendelssohn’s Spring Song (following an account of his dining with the young Schumanns) to Brahms’s Piano Sonata No 5 in F minor Op 5, an early work which he dedicated to Clara. Eventually we reach to Liszt’s gradiloquent piano transcription of Schumann’s song Widmung which brings the show to a resolute end.
It’s a real treat to see three performers at the top of their game in a show as unusual as this. And I’ll attribute the small number of minor hesitancies and stumbles to short rehearsal time. I suspect they flew this show on a quick run through earlier in the day – as people at that level can.