Even in the face of severe budget cuts, The School of Music at UNC Greensboro continues to offer its students and the public many remarkable things – festivals devoted to contemporary compositions and music for cello, fine operas and orchestral concerts, numerous faculty recitals, and the like. Among the choicest mini-festivals, the recurring “Focus on … Piano Literature” events, held every other year in late spring, stand out for in-depth examinations of music, superb performance by faculty and visiting artists, and the amazing synergy provided by some very distinguished visitors from all over the country.

This year’s event focused on “The Great Romantics: Mendelssohn & Schumann.” One might protest that there are other composers who fit that billing, but who’s to quibble with three days of amazing work?

Things were well underway when we arrived for a matinee program on Friday afternoon that featured the current Director of the Focus program, Andrew Willis, and the founder of Focus, John Salmon, both members of UNCG’s faculty. And while one might think that the focus would have been almost exclusively on piano, this program offered a twist, for it involved two vocalists, two cellists, and a hornist, and only three pieces for keyboard alone.

The concert got underway with a rare performance of Schumann’s nine Wilhelm Meister songs (1849). Music lovers are most likely to know the Goethe poems in Schubert’s (four) settings, not Schumann’s, so the chance to hear them all together was not to be missed. For the most part, soprano Nancy Walker and baritone Robert Wells did them considerable justice, receiving in the process able support from Willis. Balance between singers and accompanist may have been better with the short stick on the piano rather than with the lid fully up. The texts and translations were provided, too, and they were mostly well enough paginated – only one page turn was needed during one song. There seemed to be somewhat more piano than necessary, so perhaps the focus was still on…., but the singers warmed to the task and projected music and emotions well. Incidentally, these songs form Opus 98a; Op. 98b is a lovely little “Requiem for Mignon,” for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, that sheds still more light on Schumann’s – and Goethe’s – genius. It would have been nice to have heard that, too – although it’s probably churlish to complain, given the rarity of the Lieder.

Salmon was heard next in three works for solo piano by Mendelssohn. The Prelude and Fugue in B minor, Op. 35/3, stems from 1832 or so, the “Spring Song,” Op. 62/6, from 1845, and the big Variations Sérieuses, Op. 54, from 1841. Like Willis, Salmon is a remarkable pianist, and he brought these pieces, so different in style and mood, to vivid life. The Preludes and Fugues are not often heard – they reflect the composer’s fascination with Bach, but they’re filtered through Romantic ears. The “Song without Words” is one of the best-know of the large series; here, it emerged fresh and charming, as if recently cleaned and polished. We tend to think of the Variations as the best of Mendelssohn’s compositions in this form, and the performance demonstrated why this impression lingers, but Salmon, in his program note, wrote of a performance of one of the other sets by Willis that, he said, obliged him to rethink this long-standing belief.

The grand finale was the Andante and Variations, Op. 46b (1843), by Schumann, played in its original version for two pianos, two cellos, and horn. It is a work that at once displays the composer’s genius – and the challenges associated with performances of his music since he departed from the scene. Think about it: two pianos, two generally dark string instruments, and a lone horn (thought by many to be one of the most difficult instruments and one that was even more of a challenge in Schumann’s day than now). The tricks here are clarity in the texture and balance among the players. This was a moderate success, all things being equal. Here and there, a lighter touch would have facilitated clarity of line, and there were some balance issues – not enough horn, some of the time, not enough cello at other times. Another way to put this, of course, is that there was often too much piano, and that’s probably closer to the mark. In vocal music and chamber music like this, sometimes those piano lids should be on the short sticks. But then we must recall that this concert was one of a series meant to provide “Focus on Piano Literature,” and it’s a certainty that it fulfilled that purpose – and more!

For more information about this magnificent mini-festival, click here.