NACO putting music by Schumanns and Brahms in massive recording project

NACO returned on Halloween with the first in a series of livestreamed concerts. Photo: John Kealey

Flush with another JUNO nomination, this time for the two CD package The Bounds of Our Dreams (Analekta), the NAC Orchestra’s music director is continuing to push the record button on his ensemble.

Alexander Shelley and NACO are building a box set of Romantic music featuring Robert and Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms and more. The orchestra had recently completed a round of work under the microphones of the producer Carl Talbot working for the Quebec record label Analekta when he talked with ARTSFILE.

“We are currently recording a cycle. The focus is on Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms, this amazing love triangle. Clara’s life spans the lives of both of the men.

“She was nine or 10 years younger than Robert and he died in the middle of her life at which point Brahms became an incredibly close confident of hers.”

NACO is going to release four double CDS packed with all four Robert Schumann symphonies, all four Brahms symphonies and they “will be glued together with music by Clara,” he said. This will include her piano concerto and her piano sonata performed by the Venezuelan pianist Gabriella Montero, a piano trio featuring members of NACO and her Romances for violin and piano with Angela Hewitt and Yosuke Kawasaki, NACO’s concertmaster. The latter has already been recorded. Shelley said there will be songs by Clara Schumann recorded as well.

“I want the CDs to tell the story about how these three amazing personalities influenced each other and interacted.

“Clara is kind of astonishing. Of course, in our day and age, everyone wants to look at this through the lens of gender. That’s interesting and important, but I find that (gender aside), this is an extraordinary person. She doesn’t need to be valued because she was a woman doing amazing things in her time. She can be valued just as is.” Clara Schumann was a piano prodigy. At 11, she was travelling around Europe giving concerts, he noted.

“As an aside what I have been doing in our programming is point out that she wasn’t unique in the 19th century of being a women who was a composer who had achieved success.” There was also Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of Felix. NACO has performed one of her overtures at a concert and it has also been recorded. Another prominent female composer was Emilie Mayer, who write eight symphonies and 15 concert overtures. The week of Jan. 13, the orchestra was busy recording a lot of this work including the Mayer overtures and pieces by Clara Schumann.

The result, in the end, will be a body of work by female composers of the time “to augment the work around Clara Schumann.

A lot of this work is in the shadows cast by Robert Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn and Johannes Brahms, but Shelley believes that if “you can give them really good performances, the music can be ranked really highly.”

So far NACO has recorded the first two symphonies of Brahms, three Robert Schumann symphonies and Clara’s piano concerto. The orchestra will fit in Brahms Third Symphony in a few months and two more symphonies next year.

Having Montero around for this recording session brought an added advantage. She is a renowned improviser able to perform in any style virtually on the spot. So, Shelley said, she’ll offer some improvisations that will echo the work of Clara Schumann.

This will be a jam-packed package of recordings.

“My hope is this cycle will do a few things. First of all it will show off the orchestra. It is so important for an orchestra to do it because you have to focus in on everything — the precise ensemble, the precise intonation, real phrasing and balance, every single thing that an orchestra does. This work is very valuable.

“It will also show off individual NACO players in a chamber music setting such as Yosuke and (principal cello) Rachel Mercer.

“To an interested listener it will put the symphonic cycles back to back. Robert Schumann’s was written 15 years before Brahms’.”

This pairing will show the musical connections between the two, Shelley believes, and with Clara sitting in the middle as muse and as supporter for both men, having her music on the recordings will underscore those relationships.

This is “not just let’s do a record, it’s a big project,” he said.

In recordings done since Shelley assumed his post in 2015, two presented NACO commissions including CDs featuring Life Reflected and Encount3rs. The other two include major Canadian works by Walter Boudreau and Ana Sokolovic and pair them with European works which is intended to demonstrate the orchestra’s ability to handle core repertoire, he said.

This new recording features music that, along with Beethoven, Shelley says, is at the heart of NACO’s musical soul.

“I thought it was about time we really dove into them. It represents where we are as an orchestra and my conception of how we should sound in these symphonies.”

The first will be released later this year in the spring, he said. The rest will come out over the next two years and then finally it will come out as a box set.

This recording effort is also an important tool to promote the quality of NACO and get its reputation out there nationally and internationally.

“It’s a campaign on all fronts. I have made it no secret that I consider myself one of the orchestra’s biggest fans and I ask myself the question how do we, with so much noise in the world, inexorably make it clear that this is a world class orchestra with great aspirations.”

This also means touring and being physically in cities such as Paris or New York, wherever, and seen live, he said. Quality CDs also help spread the world.

“I am under no illusions — the market is really full, but that’s no reason not to do it.”

One of his jobs, he said, is to also make sure the orchestra is being challenged and “sharpening their teeth and aspiring to always be at their best.”

As with any project there is the hope that people will respond positively to the recordings, in part because he doesn’t believe anyone has done this kind of pairing of the music.

He did have an example of a recording of Clara’s piano concerto to consider. That one was done a decade ago by his father Howard, who is a pianist and conductor. “If I may say I think it’s the best recording on the market right now.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.