> Schumann Symphonies 1 and 4 Thielemann 4697002 [CH]: Classical Reviews- February 2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony no. 1 in B flat, op. 38 Ė "Spring"
Symphony no. 4 in D minor, op. 120

Philharmonia Orchestra/Christian Thielemann
Recorded 2.2001, All Hallows Church, London
DG 469 700-2 [68.48]


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Suppose a conductor took out his copy of the famous Furtwängler disc of Schumann 4 and, listening to it through headphones, conducted the performance he was hearing, with a live orchestra in front of him; would that orchestra follow his lead and clone the Furtwängler performance? Well, actually not, for a start because the players would laugh such a "conductor" off the podium. Cloning a famous performance is not quite that simple, yet the fact remains that one has been practically cloned here. The signs are there from the start. The first statement of the opening motto theme, followed by a crescendo leading to an offbeat crash from the full orchestra, finds Thielemann preceding that crash with an extraordinarily prolonged upbeat such as only the Master himself dared Ė and as near as makes no difference the same prolongation, though he is not quite so convincing in timing how to move on. Thereafter the introduction rolls forward in waves, just as the Masterís did, and breaks out into an identically deliberate, but energetic, Lebhaft which is characterised by those same well-remembered slackenings and surges. It is, in a certain sense, very finely brought off, with a wholehearted orchestral response, alert to every shift in tempo. The only thing is that the ebbings of tempo, and in particular those glimpses of D major serenity, sometimes bring a lowering of tension which was not the case with the great original. Thielemann is masterly in showing that it is possible to reproduce what Furtwängler did, but reproducing why he did it is not so easy.

And why reproduce so exactly one of Furtwänglerís oddest traits? Frankly, I had always supposed that the long, long pause between the first movementís unfinished cadence and the A minor chord which heralds the second movement was down to the engineers, unaware that the two movements are not separated by a pause, rather than something that Furtwängler did himself (I have the Furtwängler on an old Heliodor LP, I donít know if this gap has remained the same on recent transfers), but here it is reproduced to the second. And so it goes on. The broken phrasing of the Romanze, the sunset dying away from the sternly energetic Scherzo, the full Wagnerian works in the famous build up to the Finale and all the ebbs and flows with which this last movementís progress is mapped out are exactly as one remembered them from the model.

I do appreciate the problem. Ever since I heard Furtwänglerís absolutely riveting account it has burnt itself into my mind and for me, in a way, Schumannís 4th Symphony is that. While this fact has not wholly prevented me from appreciating other interpretations, they always sound to me like variants (even if my intellect tells me that they, and not Furtwängler, are closer to what Schumann actually wrote). As I am not a conductor I havenít had to face the problem of how to resolve my internal conflict between Schumann/Furtwängler (which is a part of my being) and Schumann himself (i.e. the score as my only guide). I can only suppose that Thielemann, faced with a similar conflict, decided emotively in favour of the first solution. I must seem a thoroughly ungrateful fellow, feeling myself an "orphan of Furtwängler" when I hear it done differently, and now criticising a performance that sounds the same; heard live, maybe Iíd just be grateful for hearing in a concert something that approximated so closely to an interpretation which has been silent for half a century. The problem is that on disc I have the original available, old-sounding compared to this but pretty good for its age. And the fact is that Thielemann in the last resort does not quite provide the same overwhelming experience. Itís not that he has not made all the vagaries thoroughly his own, but he cannot avoid the impression that he is traversing charted territory while Furtwängler was launched into unknown regions of his soul (to paraphrase Whitman). And, though the discographic world is not flooded with alternative Furtwängler Schumann Fourths as it is with Eroicas, surely his other performances were different?

In the case of the first symphony there is also a Furtwängler precedent, a live performance from Munich which has not been so widely reissued and which I have not heard. Maybe this is all for the better; in this case I can take what Thielemann has to offer on its own terms. And during the first two movements I was pretty impressed. Tempi are deliberate but he knows, for example, how to make a sequence grow so that it does not seem merely repetitive. My problems began with the scherzo which really does seem a long way below Schumannís "Molto vivace" and, however carefully phrased, rather lugubrious. And even more with the Finale. It may be fair enough to sidle into the main theme (after the opening flourish) below tempo once or even twice (picking up the tempo as you go along), but it seems a bit much to do it every time. This is symptomatic of the fact this Finale doesnít quite go, and as Finales are expected to go then some people are going to think that Schumann himself had written a Finale which speaks amiably of woodland tales but hardly makes for a symphonic conclusion. The essential Schumannesque exultation is missing. I know that the symphonies come from an older Schumann than the one who wrote all those infatuated-sounding piano works for Clara, overflowing into the annus mirabilis of song when he married her, but to suggest that his Eusebius was by now content to croon by the fireside while an avuncular Florestan looks on seems reductive, and inconsistent with the psychology of the composer who later threw himself into the Rhine. I checked out a performance Celibidache conducted in Milan in 1968 and, while he found plenty of time for detail, he also caught that overall surge. I do feel, though, that Thielemann would be well-suited to the homely pleasures of Raff and that DG should engage him to record a cycle of that composerís symphonies.

The famous Schumann cycles (Sawallisch, Karajan, Szell, Kubelik, and Boult if you can find it) are all in their various ways classical interpretations. If you prefer a romantic alternative then give these daringly well-meanings a try, especially if you have difficulties with the historic sound of the Furtwängler versions.

Christopher Howell


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