Arts & Events

Veronika Eberle Plays Schumann’s Long Forgotten Violin Concerto

James Roy MacBean
Tuesday May 23, 2017 - 06:47:00 AM

Robert Schumann had enjoyed great success as a composer, but by 1853 he was chronically depressed, attempted suicide, and was subsequently placed in a mental asylum, where he died three years later at age 46. Nonetheless, in 1853 Schumann composed a violin concerto that premiered in a reading rehearsal in January 1854 with the great violinist Joseph Joachim and his orchestra. Joachim was not particularly pleased with Schumann’s Violin Concerto, and he never performed it publicly. When Schumann died, Joachim, Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms all seem to have concurred that the Violin Concerto was not up to Schumann’s earlier standards, so Joachim donated the score to the Prussian State Library in Berlin on condition that it must not be played until 100 years after Schumann’s death.  

Actually, Schumann’s Violin Concerto was performed 81 years after his death because Joachim’s son was persuaded to permit publication and performance of this work in 1937. The Nazi regime appropriated it and scheduled the Schumann Violin Concerto as part of the Reichskulturkammer’s national conference in Berlin in 1937. Although the score had been sent to Yehudi Menuin, he was dropped by the Nazis because he was Jewish. The violinist in the 1937 performance in Berlin was Georg Kulenkampff, and the version of the Schumann Violin Concerto he played was one extensively revised by Paul Hindemith. Ten days later, Yehudi Menuin played the work as Schumann had written it at a recital in New York’s Carnegie Hall.  

In a series of four concerts May 17-21, 2017, German violinist Veronika Eberle made her debut with San Francisco Symphony performing the Schumann Violin Concerto with the orchestra led by Guest Conductor Roberto Abbado. I attended the Saturday evening concert in Davies Hall. Veronika Eberle made a strong case for this work, or as strong a case as can be made for a work that suffers from tedious repetitiousness, especially in the final movement. Eberle’s tone is lush, and dark hued. Her technique is flawless. Roberto Abbado led an energetic reading of this work, although there was little subtlety in this account, and what subtlety there was came from Eberle’s attention to dynamics. Nonetheless, Schumann’s Violin Concerto has a lovely slow movement, and this liltingly melodic movement was the highlight of the piece, exquisitely played by Veronica Eberle. It begins with somber tones: cellos, violas, and basses plus bassoons and quiet horns. The solo violin offers a rapturous melody. Eberle’s duets with principal cellist Michael Grebanier during this movement were lovely exchanges. As for the final movement, well, it offers thin material repeated endlessly. Veronika Eberle soldiered through it in disciplined fashion, making the best of it. She is a violinist I’m sure we will hear more from in future.  

Preceding the Schumann Violin Concerto on this program was a curiosity: excerpts from Busoni’s Turandot Suite. Composed in 1905, this suite was based on the same Carlo Gozzi play that Puccini later used for his opera. Ferruccio Busoni composed eight movements for his Turandot Suite, of which we heard only eight. That was enough. Musically, Busoni’s writing is all over the place. There are allusions to Persian music, Turkish music, Indian music, and, of course, Chinese music. In addition, there are parodic allusions to Richard Wagner and Gioachino Rossini. The opening excerpt we heard was full of bombast. There were nice moments, however, in the Nächtlicher Walzer or Night Waltz, and there was a lovely flute solo in the final excerpt, beautifully played by Tim Day.  

After intermission , Roberto Abbado led the orchestra in Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Opus 56, Scottish. This symphony was inspired by a trip Mendelssohn made to Scotland in 1829. It begins in a dark, somber mood with brooding music from oboe, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and violas. When the violins enter, the music becomes impassioned, yet quietly so. However, loud outbursts occasionally offer dynamic contrasts to the overriding quiet of this movement. The second movement is a lively Scherzo, where the strings scurry about in merry fashion and the principal clarinetist, here Carey Bell, plays the engaging main theme. To me, this Scherzo is the work’s finest moment. The following Adagio offers a lilting melody offset by darker passages. The fourth and final movement offers a military vitality that seems to suggest the element of strife in Scottish history. There occurs a noteworthy shift from A minor to the bright A Major key near the end of this movement, bringing the symphony to a close on a heroic and seemingly victorious note that is not altogether convincing to my ear.