Zoe Knighton & Amir Farid
Move Records MD 346 1
Not that I’m complaining – overmuch – but this CD’s title is ambiguous, if not misleading. Both Schumanns are treated here: Clara and Robert. Clara, I hear you cry? Yes: it’s far-fetched because the finest pianist of her time didn’t write anything for cello and piano – the only instruments in play when Zoe Knighton and Amir Farid are the featured artists. Although a short frisson of hope rose when I saw the CD’s accompanying leaflet.
Clara Schumann’s chamber music includes a piano trio and a violin sonata – and that’s all. What we’re given here are three of her song-cycles, and no – Knighton does not display another side to her talents but uses her instrument as a substitute for the vocal line to the Op. 12 Three Ruckert Lieder, the Op. 13 Six Songs, and the Sechs Lieder aus ‘Jucunde’, Op. 23. As for Robert Schumann, his output involving cello as an individual voice is more substantial, including the A minor Concerto, three piano trios, the piano quintet and quartets, and one definite cello/piano duet: Funf Stucke im Volkston. This last-named is included on this CD, as well as one of two other pieces where the cello is a possible participant: the Fantasy Pieces Op. 73 that the composer wrote for the clarinet/piano combination but allowed for violin or cello, just as he did for the Op. 70 Adagio and Allegro – originally for horn and piano, but capable of transference to violin or cello.
The Knighton/Farid combination has produced a fair swag for Move Records, including an album of pretty much everything Mendelssohn wrote for this combination; ditto Beethoven; a Russian catch-all, including Prokofiev’s Op. 119; Debussy’s sonata finishing off a French collection with lots of arrangements; and an Argentine Tango CD with only one Piazzolla track (a remarkable accomplishment), although it’s a substantial one. This Schumann release is the duo’s first collaboration in six years, their previous five Move products dating from between 2010 and 2015.
The 15 songs average about 2’42” in length; not much time for padding. But you could say much the same about Robert Schumann’s two works, which are generally concise and lacking in sprawl. Confounding expectations even further (or adding to the mystery), the text of each song is printed in English; presumably, so you yourself can sing along with the cello. Or, more realistically, this verse publication intends to give you an idea of what the Knighton/Farid duo are attempting to communicate. Actually, not just an idea but the full picture.
This disc opens with Clara Schumann’s Op. 13 settings of two Heine poems, one by Ruckert, and three by Emanuel Geibel. These are polished and lyrically crafted songs, Knighton performing the first three an octave below the vocal line, the final three at the original level. Of course, you can find traces of her husband’s characteristics and some specific phrases sound finely woven enough to have come from his catalogue, like the slightly asymmetric prelude and postlude to Ich stand in dunklen Traumen; possibly the performers make too much of the sustained D on gestehen and Traum in Sie liebten sich beide but the work needs some individuality; Liebeszauber was accomplished with excellent control of touch by Farid whose triplets were light and non-glutinous, while both artists shone in the ritardando across the poem’s last two regretful lines.
Knighton gave a remarkable reading of the vocal line to Der Mond kommt still gegangen, the 5th that features at the start of each stanza’s second line moving into territory as touching as any singer could make it. A similar sensitivity pervaded the duo’s reading of Ich hab’ in Deinem Auge, a finely constructed lyric with a silk-smooth ease of utterance. As for Die stille Lotusblume, both musicians found here an ideal capstone for the cycle with a sensitive realization of the piano part’s rhythmic regularity, a plangent cello line that followed the composer’s evolving melodic patterns with telling sympathy, the series ending with a fine reflection of the poet’s concluding question through an inconclusive dominant 7th.
Kingston shines even more in the Ruckert poems, the first played an octave lower than written while the others make a positive impression because the cellist gives them a carefully etched outline; not exactly overdoing the vibrato but staying the right side of intrusive. Both artists made excellent work of Er ist gekommen with its contrast of nervous Werther-like angst succeeded by a mellifluous Ruhig stanza, polished off with a meltingly fluid downward moving cello line in the composer’s repeat of the last stanza.
Liebst du um Schonheit also was handled with consideration, even if its material impresses as bland – probably because of the sameness at the start of each section, the mould only fractured in the second half of the last quatrain; Farid’s brief postlude an excellent instance of his talent in finding a level of warm pathos – nothing too much. As for the concluding Warum willst du, here you come across a small gem of expression where each phrase slots into the next with admirable craft and, as in its companions, the climax arrives with little bravura but a world of emotional conviction. It helps immeasurably that Knighton and Farid deliver each sentence in well-practised partnership, each slight pause pitched in unshakeable congruence.
Clara’s Six Songs taken from Hermann Rollet’s novel Jucunde are a mixed blessing in terms of attractiveness and emotional variety. Here, if anywhere, you miss a singer’s input because of a kind of textual similarity, both literary and musical. The opening piece, Was weinst du, Blumlein, prefigures the unalloyed optimism of the cycle’s last two numbers – Das ist ein Tag and O lust, o Lust. Mind you, this first number also aims for a folksy cuteness and it unfortunately succeeds, to the point where the third stanza, fairly predictable, verges on the tedious. Nothing against the following An einem lichten Morgen, but attention fell more on the piano accompaniment and its speckled arpeggios than on the cello line which remained measured and spacious – one might almost say orotund – in comparison.
It takes you a while to get into the vein of Geheimes Flustern which has a 3/8 time signature but sets up two rhythmic patterns that wrong-foot each other. Not that challenging, as things turn out, but a deft exercise with a fine melody which didn’t captivate the performers that much as they played only two of its three verses. A complement to the first song in the cycle, Auf einem grunen Hugel has the same simplicity of style, if in a minor key and langsam. The realization is just as much a contrast, too, as the performers take care with their continuity to weave the setting’s irregular statements into a convincing whole.
The last pair are brief essays in jubilation: the first celebrates spring with some familiar onomatopoeia in bird tweets and hunting horns, while O Lust, o Lust has the same 6/8 metre but speaks in wider arches than its companion (the shortest in the set) where the piano support is a jig. Farid’s contributions have a convincing energy to them; Knighton clearly delights in the euphony of her melodies, the instrumental web fluent and definite.
Then we arrive at Robert Schumann’s two works and more familiar territory. I came to know, if not to love, the Op. 73 Fantasy Pieces through student performances under its three formats – clarinet, violin and cello. – and prefer the clarinet version for its definition and parity of dynamic. Knighton and Farid give a worthy account on this disc but its contours are cloudy. This is not an avoidable problem but any partial solution lies in the cello’s ability to push itself forward; a big bull instrument would have more luck but in this instance the instrumental mix proved over-polite. Farid, as usual, was all consideration for his partner and this approach worked pretty well in the first two Eusebius pieces, although even here you were denied much insight into the undercurrents of restlessness that characterize Schumann’s emotional landscape.
The concluding Rasch und mit Feuer kept up the underpinning rhythmic ferment but the piano’s output came over as half-cocked, nowhere strong enough in loud concerted passages; not even at the one fortissimo marking in my edition four bars from the end. The sforzandi lacked much punch and that vehemence that should erupt when cello and piano unite for the main theme’s upward rush impressed as muddy. To my ears, the most lucid of the three pieces was the central Lebhaft, mainly because the actual writing is more transparent and – to use a technical term – bouncy.
On first hearing, you’d think that the Five Pieces in Folk Style puts the cello consistently in front position and, for some of the time, that’s true. Listen again and you become aware of the interesting nature of the keyboard accompaniment. Sometimes it stays just that, with chord support and melody doubling. Then, a burst of individualism emerges, and another; eventually you realize that the distribution of labour is not all one-sided. There is another intriguing factor in Schumann’s odd phrase-lengths. I’m assuming that the melodies are the composer’s own, not gleaned from mittel-European sources; as well, the tunes often range too far to have that necessary gnomic quality.
Speaking of gnomic, the first of these pieces is titled Vanitas vanitatum, which some commentators have taken to refer to a Goethe poem about a drunken soldier. Certainly, that seems to have informed this duo who rolick through it Mit Humor, as required, and a plethora of lurches. This is where you get the impression that Farid will be underused, but then the piano takes on prominence when the key changes to F Major and he is not backward in coming forward, even if Kingston is working on her lower strings. But then, in the following Langsam, the piano gets to shine for about 15 bars only with a statement of the mellifluous and wide-reaching tune before sinking back to secondary position.
Honours are more even in Nicht schnell, mit viel Ton zu spielen for which the piano has a tattoo-like pattern under the cello’s asymmetrical tune; then full chords under the cello’s double-stop 11 bars when the key changes to A Major (not kind for the instrument and an obvious strain for Knighton) during which the keyboard is set into arpeggio mode that recurs at a finger-stretching coda. Further on, in the penultimate Nicht zu rasch piece, Farid gave the full-bodied chords unexpected power, notably in the last two bars. Not that this is subtle music with its oddly four-square structure and non-subtle movement forward; added to this, Farid’s harmonic changes in the central section take attention away from the treble-clef cello line/theme.
The last piece, Stark und markirt, reminds you of the Cello Concerto’s outer movements with its surging power. Once more, Farid is far from a support only. Luckily, this piece was articulated with welcome briskness of attack and a determination to call a forte a forte. Further, you were left in no doubt that this piece was a thorough partnership, one furnished with dramatic character and emotional urgency: an attention-grabbing track that worked quite effectively to finish a CD that has its fair share of restrained, pensive rambles.