REVIEW: Stratford Literary Festival, I Clara, Lucy Parham and Juliet Stephenson

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Lucy Parham and Juliet Stephenson

Peter Buckroyd reviews Lucy Parham and Juliet Stephenson, I Clara, Stratford Play House, 29th April

After a very successful career as solo concert pianist Lucy Parham turned her hand to writing a series of programmes where she played the piano and a well-known actor or actors narrated a composer’s biography. The first of these was Beloved Clara, the story of Clara Weick’s marriage to Robert Schumann. For the two hundredth anniversary of Clara Schumann’s birth Lucy Parham has created a story out of the whole of Clara Schumann’s life, and a moving and uplifting tale it is too.

Excellent programme notes by Lucy Parham very much enhanced the audience’s enjoyment. The programme itself consists of Clara’s words from her letters and diaries but the programme notes give a rather more dispassionate and less personal appraisal of her life and career. Whichever you lean on Clara was a remarkable woman. She was a outstandingly promising composer; she was an international concert pianist who gave more than 1500 performances in her lifetime; she looked after eight children; she saw four of them predecease her; she made friends who supported and nurtured her while her husband was in a mental asylum, dying there at the age of 4b6; she was the main (to begin with) and then sole bread winner; she remained loyal to the memory of her husband until her death.

The narrative was given by the wonderful Juliet Stephenson – almost always measured (except for one wonderfully dramatic moment), never mawkish, always mediating between Clara’s words and the audience.

Lucy Parham played music composed by Clara herself, Robert Schumann, Chopin, Mendelssohn and Brahms. The music was skilfully chosen to support elements of the narrative and from time to time, as for example in the performance of Brahms’s Intermezzo in A Op. 118 No. 1, you could hear the way Clara had described Brahms’s combination of shyness and brashness. There was also a lovely moment in the playing of Schumann’s Arabesque Op.18, played just after Juliet’s Clara had said that she didn’t think she had ever played it with such a feeling of sadness on the occasion of Clara’s last concert in London, where Parham brought out perfectly the delicacy, tenderness and underlying sadness of the piece.

Clara Schumann gave her last concert at the age of seventy-two. A remarkable career. This was the sold-out premiere of I Clara and a fitting tribute to a remarkable woman from two remarkable and charming performers.