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  Classical Editor: Rob Barnett  
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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
The Four Symphonies

Symphony No. 1 Spring (1841) [30.40]
Symphony No. 2 (1846) [34.38]
Symphony No. 3 Rhenish (1850) [31.51]
Symphony No. 4 (1841 rev. 1851) [29.27]
Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim
rec. 12-14 March 2003, Studio 1 NLG, Berlin. DDD
TELDEC CLASSICS 2564 61179-2 2 [72.39+67.14]


Robert Schumann’s four symphonies have had a chequered career over the past forty years on record. There have been sets by Bernstein (twice), Boult, Chailly, Dohnanyi, Eschenbach, Haitink, Harnoncourt, Inbal, Janowski, Karajan, Kubelik (twice), Levine (twice), Marriner, Masur, Paray, Sawallisch (twice), Schwarz, Muti, Solti, Szell, Vasary, Vonk, Wit, in addition to the now two cycles by Daniel Barenboim.

There is also a set in the Mahler "reorchestration" by Aldo Ceccato on BIS. This does not compete with the cycles mentioned above, but is still worth hearing.

If the truth were told, each of the above sets has something to offer, and none of them is really able to be consigned to the bin. Any new recording of these four popular symphonies must be really special to stand out among the competition.

Barenboim’s earlier cycle on DG with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was always thought of quite highly and this new set is similarly of high quality. This review is not meant to be a comparative review of the available sets; they were mentioned only to show what competition there is and whether we really do need yet another set.

Barenboim has been touring with the Berlin Staatskapelle over the past few years and has been getting the orchestra (and himself) rave notices in the press. Unlike the Chicago Symphony, the Berlin Staatskapelle is steeped in the German tradition of classical symphonic music, and whether one feels that this set is the ultimate in Schumann playing is not the point; this set displays Schumann’s symphonies in a very favourable light. The strings are sweet and flexible, with colourful woodwinds and clear non-strident brass. The recordings are immediate and truthful, and set in a believable acoustic. This is quite unlike the audio savaging this set suffered at the hands of Classic FM a week or so ago. Their filtering and compression all but destroyed these performances, and so if you were put off, don’t be – they sound much, much better than the broadcast, especially the glorious Adagio in the Symphony No. 2.

It is often said that Barenboim tries to imitate Furtwängler in his conducting style, but I find only rarely does he succeed in this. It is much better, I believe, to say that he conducts in the style of Barenboim and leave it at that. I miss the organic sense of forward movement which is so evident in Furtwängler's performances. This is a very pale copy.

This set is an improvement on his DG set, not only because of the technical advances in the recording quality; the DG set was a bit strident. Where the heavy brass in the American ensemble is well known for flattening audiences against the back wall of the performance areas, the style and taste of the German players makes for quite a pleasant improvement.

If you have a particular favourite among the above sets stay with it (or them), but if you fancy something more up to date I do urge you to hear this set – it is very, very attractive, and played superbly.

John Phillips

see also review by Rob Barnett


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