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Schumann & Mendelssohn – Sophie Pacini

When Sophie Pacini made her Warner Classics debut in 2016 with a programme of Beethoven and Liszt, Gramophone described the young German-Italian, a protégée of Martha Argerich, as “a prodigious pianist”. On her new album, called In Between, she performs works by four composers as she explores their personal and musical relationships: between Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn; between Schumann and his wife Clara, and between Mendelssohn and his sister Fanny. Their contemporary Franz Liszt also features on the album, as the transcriber for piano of one of Schumann’s most glorious songs, Widmung (Dedication), which was inspired by Clara.

Schumann and Mendelssohn are, of course, firmly established in the musical pantheon, but Clara Schumann (celebrated as a concert pianist) and Fanny Mendelssohn were notable composers too. For too long, their creativity and their compositions were underestimated, but in recent years their talents and influence have become more widely recognised.

Felix Mendelssohn was born in 1809, Robert Schumann in 1810 and Franz Liszt in 1811. Mendelssohn and Schumann became friends in the city of Leipzig, where Mendelssohn was in charge of the Gewandhaus Orchestra and Schumann edited the influential journal he had founded, Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. As Sophie Pacini explains: “They supported each other’s careers … Schumann ‘promoted’ Mendelssohn’s work, and Mendelssohn conducted the first performances of Schumann’s first two symphonies … I see Mendelssohn as belonging more in the line of Mozart, while I feel Schumann is closer to Beethoven. A decisive force in Schumann’s music is his self-examination, his feelings and his mood, while Mendelssohn takes his lead primarily from concrete thoughts. For me, Schumann’s music is like finding your way through a dense forest, while with Mendelssohn the route is clear and well signposted … Schumann needs a heavier, darker sonority, while for Mendelssohn the touch needs to lighter, almost crystalline.”

The works by Schumann on In Between are the Fantasiestücke op.12 – highly Romantic pieces which evoke the composer’s two contrasting personae, the impetuous Florestan and the introspective Eusebius – and the virtuosic Toccata op. 7. Mendelssohn is represented by the Variations sérieuses op.54, the Rondo capriccioso in E major op.14 and five of his Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without words), including the most famous of them all, Frühlingslied (Spring song).

Sophie Pacini points out that it was Fanny (four years older than Felix) who came up with the idea of the ‘song without words’. The album duly includes Fanny’s four Lieder for piano, op 2 No 1, which Pacini admires for their innovative spirit: “You can hear how Fanny makes daring, almost insolent modulations, venturing into harmonic regions that her brother never sought out.” Felix respected his sister’s opinions on his own music and valued her talent, going so far as to describe her work as “like the soul of music,” saying, “There is nothing better.” Yet, perhaps patronisingly, he did not feel that she had the dedication to be a published composer, claiming “She is too much of a woman for that.”

Clara Schumann was a highly gifted woman of great determination and fortitude. As a renowned pianist she became the breadwinner for the Schumann family when, in the 1850s, Robert began to suffer seriously from mental illness. It was Robert’s portrait of Clara in the piece ‘Chiarina’ from Carnaval (written in 1834-35) that gave Sophie Pacini the idea for In Between. “I wondered what Clara meant to Robert … I found the answer in her Scherzo op 14 [which features on this album]. I sensed an inner conflict and something almost obsessive in its constant repetitions of the same motifs … We see Clara Schumann’s character.” Pacini feels that something of the same spirit emanates from ‘In der Nacht’ in Robert’s Fantasiestücke and she points out that some of his works quote directly from Clara’s music: “She was not just a sympathetic interpreter of his music or merely some kind of muse.”
Even Clara was daunted by Liszt’s dazzling brilliance as a pianist and her tensions might have played a part in the eventual cooling of the friendship between her husband and the charismatic Hungarian. The two men had started corresponding in the late 1830s and first met in Dresden in 1840. It was in that same year that Robert composed the passionate song ‘Widmung’ to a poem by Friedrich Rückert, and its surging lyricism reaches new and expansive heights in Liszt’s version for solo piano.