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Decided Quickly and Won

Sontraud Speidel substituted for Justus Frantz when ill

By Martin W. Essinger

The Heidelberg Society of the Music and Art Friends had initially engaged Justus Frantz for its sixth chamber music evening. In the early morning, he cancelled his appearance due to tenosynovitis. At short notice, Sontraud Speidel substituted for him with an extensive Schumann program. She is professor in Karlsruhe, has won many prizes and documented her pianistic art on several recordings. In 1979, she played in the Palais Schaumburg, and in 1980, she made a concert tour through the Soviet Union with great success. The historic assembly-hall of the university was completely sold out, and everybody was in great anticipation for Frantz. Though the change in performers, only a few concert-goers returned their tickets. However, there were quite a few that looked upset, and were disappointed about the cancellation. In contrast to the initially scheduled rather short program with popular works of the piano literature, three rarely played compositions of Robert Schumann would now be heard. How frequently is it possible to hear all twenty pieces of the “Album Leaves”, op. 124, played completely? Schumann composed them between 1832 and 1845, creating musical miniatures, each with very different characters. Surely, not all of them are on the same compositional level; some are even similar in style to the superficial salon music of the Biedermeier composers. An artist with the dignity of Sontraud Speidel makes, however, all these pieces interesting. “Sorrow’s Presentiment” and “Endless Sorrow” were played as deeply felt scenes, and they remained in remembrance also due to their simple melodies. On the other hand, the two “Fantasia Pieces” required the entire keyboard with wild and intense gestures. The two following charming “Waltzes” are typical for Schumann. The “Lullaby”, composed for his daughter Marie in 1841, seems to be a piece from his “Scenes from Childhood”, which are very popular among piano playing youth; Sontraud Speidel played it with particular intimacy. The rapid “Canon” was the effective finale of the “Album Leaves”. Sontraud Speidel managed to give each of the twenty miniatures its own character. She played the pieces without any undue excess, and gave the pieces a superior expression with the warmth of female sentiment.

Schumann’s third Piano Sonata in f minor was composed in 1835. Initially, it contained five movements, and was played by Sontraud Speidel after the intermission. One of the two Scherzos of this strange composition was removed by Schumann in the final version. Mrs. Speidel played this movement as the second piece before the intermission. The pianist pointed out the quality of this nearly forgotten piece by her conscientious interpretation. Particularly pleasing was its lyrical and romantic middle section; in the Presto section, Sontraud Speidel could display her perfect technique, which she never uses simply for efect.

After the intermission, Schumann’s strange “Concerto without Orchestra” could be heard. Obviously, this third Sonata in f minor must be counted among his best works. Franz Liszt estimated this piece very highly; nevertheless, it has been played since then very rarely. Surely, it is an outstandingly bold work in its musical approach and shape. But it is also deeply emotional and highly virtuosic, as it was played by Sontraud Speidel. The pianist played the first movement with the necessary emotional intensity, and the stormy stir of the musical happenings captured the audience directly. The style of the second movement is like a short novel. The third movement, titled “Quasi Variationi, Andantino da Clara Wieck”, fascinatingly varies a march-like theme of sixteen bars; it is pointed out that Clara was still sixteen years old at that time. Schumann reveals in those variations his whole art, and his sincere passion, which forms the basis for the fourth, tragic variation. The virtuous and powerful “Prestissimo possible” guides the captivating work to a furious finale. The pianist owed the difficult piece nothing, and she was greeted with strong applause and flowers. She returned the favor by playing a piece by Mendelssohn-Bartholdy as an encore. Mrs. Speidel presented much more on this evening than just a substitute for an ailing celebrity. Her guarded manner, her warm sound, and her singing interpretation were always at the service of the musical content: service to art, and not for effect, are paramount for her.


Translation: Dr. Jürgen Rodeland, John Nisbet