What does it mean to create a work deemed so deleterious to anyone who might encounter it that one’s friends, collaborators, and even a trusted spouse attempt to keep it secret from the world at large?
A man as self-contained as Herman Melville had this reaction to some of his own writings, first with Moby-Dick, which he worried was an evil book, and then with Pierre, which so troubled him that at the eleventh hour he dashed off a note to his publisher advising that maybe they should put it out anonymously and say it was by a random Vermonter. But there were no imaginary New Englanders at hand to bail out German composer Robert Schumann with his Violin Concerto in D Minor. The only violin concerto across the whole of Schumann’s output, he composed it in three weeks in the fall of 1853, at a time Schumann was making his way down the abyss.
A suicide attempt would follow in February of the next year, and while no one was exactly shocked by that development, it didn’t help the cause of the concerto, which Schumann had penned for the violinist Joseph Joachim. Joachim thought the work could not be beneficial to those who heard it, as it came from a place that was (shall we say) unstable and unnerving, where maybe even madness held sway.
Schumann died in 1856, and Joachim convinced both Schumann’s widow, Clara (who ought to have known better given her own musical abilities), and Brahms (who was consulting in these matters and should have known better as well) not to include the concerto in an edition of Schumann’s life works. And so a work of bedeviled genius, which broke through the black and haze to touch the palms of angels, was tamped out for the better part of a century.
This new recording, with period orchestra and the intriguingly named Isabelle Faust on violin, shows us why we need to come back to what is tantamount to a final Schumann masterpiece. (The Piano Trio No. 3 is also present, with Alexander Melnikov doing the honors; but that is the digestif to ease us out after the ride that is the concerto.)
The first movement must have left Schumann’s circle nonplussed: It’s like a mini-symphony, something Haydn might have drawn up—though it’s decidedly less above ground, less in the sunlight, than Haydn tended to be. Its opening blast of sound, with the orchestra swelling in full voice, serves notice that we are not here merely to have a violinist step forward and idle away our time with virtuosity.
In fact, the violinist is subservient to the orchestra, as it is the latter that dictates direction, tempo, and how long each soloistic flourish will be, as if the orchestra were life and the violinist the lone individual trying to make sense of it all.
Faust’s vibrato leads to some shimmering, more recognizably concertante, lines in the intermezzo second movement, which is all reflected glass, beams of citrine-color, and spindles of light, with passages so delicate as to suggest that musical ghosts have visited upon us, a sound light enough that one all but wonders how it was picked up on the recording.
The notion of the living specter is apt, as Schumann was feeling like one himself—enough so, indeed, that he believed the ghosts of Schubert and Mendelssohn had popped down from their otherworldly sphere to present him with the concerto’s central melody. Schumann would be haunted by that melody until his death, no longer recalling he had composed it for his own concerto and wondering how it kept occurring to him as he wrote his final works.
But the ghosts were not done. Joachim, having buried the score in a library in Berlin, had it written into his will that the piece could not be performed until 100 years after Schumann’s death. But cut to the spring of 1933: Two of Joachim’s grand-nieces, who also happened to be violinists, were staging a séance at which Schumann—presumably having learned a thing or two from the shades of Schubert and Mendelssohn—stopped in to declare, in effect: Hey, play my neglected masterpiece, which is also the missing link in violin history. Wrangling to perform it ensued, and various copyright laws and problems were discovered; but by 1937 the concerto had escaped from its hold and was being heard in the world.