TWIN SPIRITS: Portraying the Love of Robert & Clara Schumann in Words & Music.
Sting (Robert Schumann "in words"); Simon Keenlyside (Robert Schumann "in song"); Trudie Styler (Clara Wieck "in words"); Rebecca Evans (Clara Wieck "in song"); Derek Jacobi (narrator); Sergei Krylov (violin); Natalie Clein (cello); Iain Burnside (piano); Natasha Paremski (piano); Martin Ward (musical arrangements); "devised and directed for the stage" by John Caird.
Opus Arte OA 0984 D DVD (2 disks) TT: 246:04

Better than you'd expect. This entertainment comes out of a charity event held at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. If you don't blink, you can see Alfred Brendel schmoozing before the curtain goes up. Basically, it pairs the music of Robert and Clara Schumann with their writings to and about one another (with side trips to Mozart and Chopin). The texts and notes don't line up chronologically, but emotionally. The words, from letters and diaries (particularly the so-called "marriage" diary which they kept jointly), chronicle the couple from pre-courtship to Robert's insanity and death, with a bit on Clara's long widowhood. A whiff of the "high-class" charity event lingers a little over the enterprise. Frankly, when I saw Sting's name, I muttered, "God save us from arty rockers." However, Sting surprised me. His delivery was intelligent, understated, with just enough "characterization" that you felt the presence of another personality, perhaps even Schumann's. In other words, he convinced me. It's the professional actors -- Jacobi and Styler -- that I occasionally caught "acting." Jacobi at times became a Masterpiece Theatre compère, while Styler here and there over-emoted. Her young Clara Wieck was a little too cute. However, Jacobi's lines functioned simply for set-ups and connections, and Styler became genuinely moving as Clara bears the family catastrophe.

However, the real glory of the evening lies -- don't be too surprised -- in the music and the performances. Evans does well with her songs, although she occasionally slips into opera mode. Burnside supplies sensitive accompaniments -- a pro who knows his Schumann. The cellist Natalie Clein . . . well, I couldn't concentrate too well on her music-making, she's so gorgeous -- a bit like the young Argerich. What I did get showed a fiery but musical personality. She's wonderful in chamber music. American pianist Natasha Paremski negotiated some fiendish passage-work from Clara's piano concerto with spirit and aplomb. Violinist Sergei Krylov seemed uncomfortable in a chamber setting, but he certainly set the tone of the playing. You couldn't accuse him of bland good taste or timidity. However, baritone Simon Keenlyside stood out. I've heard few better Lieder singers. Furthermore, his duet with Evans in Mozart's "Là ci darem" from Don Giovanni provided the musical highpoint of the enterprise -- silkily seductive and a better aphrodisiac than oysters (though not as tasty). It strikes me as ironic that Mozart beats out Schumann in a Schumann documentary -- home-field advantage notwithstanding.

The music, for the most part, serves the drama. Sometimes, we get abbreviations or cutoffs so the readings may continue. At other times, piano pieces have been "orchestrated" for the instrumental ensemble and at least one solo song turned into a duet. However, Martin Ward displays great taste, even in a chamber arrangement of something like ”Träumerei" -- a trap that can lead to sugar coma if you don't take care.

Some of the best bits come from the bonus disc, which contains, among other things, interviews with the musicians and the actors as well as a short documentary made at the Schumann-Haus in Zwickau, the composer's birthplace. John Caird serves as interlocutor. As he talks with the actors, it becomes clear that the group brings contemporary cultural perspectives to the marriage. Clara becomes the put-upon mother of the brood, while Robert flits about doing as he pleases -- writing symphonies and music criticism, preparing to conduct, and so on. This really doesn't survive a moment's thought. Clara, one of the greatest pianists of her day, was the primary breadwinner (one of her tours paid the family's expenses for three years) and had plenty of domestic help. She couldn't have practiced otherwise, and she set herself challenging programs. Don't get me wrong. She had plenty to put up with otherwise from Schumann, who among other things couldn't bear extraneous noise while he worked. I don't remember how they worked it out. She may have had to practice off-premises or Schumann may have composed off-premises. At any rate, musicologist Daniel Gallagher sits in and occasionally and gently puts things right. I should point out that these are extremely informal conversations among intelligent people. My favorite moment comes from pianist Natasha Paremski, who uses the word "vibe" and then asks, "That's not too American a word, is it?" Iain Burnside replies in his Best British Manner, "It's a word, yes."

For me, however, the documentary, One Heart, One Soul, counts as the most interesting portion of the bonus features. It consists of the director of Schumann-Haus, Gerd Nauhaus, a man who knows his Schumann as well as anybody, discussing the composer. He too corrects some of the misperceptions that have arisen during the other interviews. Nauhaus speaks German, but you can choose subtitles from among several languages, including English.

One may very well ask what audience these discs serve. Sting provides one answer: those not normally interested in classical music can come to the genre by getting involved in the story. It is a cracking good story, if a little weepy -- a Romance novel that happens to be true. Die-hard Sting fanatics will probably want it, even though he doesn't sing. Those who know their Schumann may or may not find something to interest them. The performances all shine, but it's not a Schumann concert, after all. You'll just have to work it out for yourselves.

S.G.S. (February 2010)