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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
CD 1
Overture to Schiller’s Die Braut von Messina (Bride of Messina), Op. 100 (1850-51) [7:36]
Symphony No. 1 in B flat major, Op. 38, ‘Spring’ (1841) [33:40]
Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op. 62 (1845-46) [36:41]
CD 2
Overture to Goethe’s Hermann und Dorothea, Op. 136 (1851) [9:06]
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 97, ‘Rhenish’ (1850) [35:56]
Philharmonia Orchestra/Riccardo Muti
Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120 (1841, revised 1851) [31:43]
New Philharmonia Orchestra/Riccardo Muti
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, July 1978 (overtures); September, October 1978 (Sym. 1); October 1977 (Sym. 2); October 1977 (Sym. 3) and Abbey Road, London, September 1976 (Sym. 4). ADD
EMI CLASSICS GEMINI 0946 3 71497 2 0 [78:14 + 77:04]
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Schumann’s Symphony No. 1 Spring’ was composed in 1841, shortly after his marriage to Clara and sketched in a white-hot haste of just four days. Descriptive titles were originally given to the four movements: ‘Spring’s Awakening’; ‘Evening’; ‘Merry Playmates’ and ‘Full Spring’. But when the score was published the titles were not used. Malcolm MacDonald in the booklet notes states, "Schumann meant it to express the longing for spring and the burgeoning forces of nature, and soon abandoned his programmatic titles for the four movements."

Recorded Kingsway Hall, Muti and his Philharmonia in the opening movement of the ‘SpringSymphony are uncompromising and highly-charged. Spring has certainly awakened with a bang. Muti has the Philharmonia fired up for the occasion in an exuberant performance bursting with joy and optimism. I was impressed with the reading of the Larghetto where Muti brings out the character and heart of the music. In the Scherzo there’s a slower pace than I have come to prefer, then at 3:46 he effortlessly speeds up. Muti allows the music time to breathe in this tautly controlled reading. In the final movement Allegro animato e grazioso a direct sense of forward momentum is conveyed without losing the character of the score’s magnificent edifices. My ears were drawn to the uplifting horn solo at 5:07 and the Pan-like woodwind solo at 5:23; examples of the impressive individual detail of this performance.

The Symphony No. 2 was composed between 1845-46 and is cast in four movements. Although it is numbered as his second it was actually the third to be written. Schumann was badly affected by nervous problems whilst working on this score and although he explained that it was, "…a souvenir of a dark period..." he also explained, "It is music of light and shade, sunshine and shadow."

In the opening movement the Philharmonia provide impressive bite and vitality. In the Scherzo I appreciated their sharp and characterful playing; the development towards the climax of the movement is especially outstanding. In the lyrical slow movement in an affectionate interpretation the maestro provides a natural and unforced ebb and flow. The Finale marked Allegro molto vivace is given an epic reading: confident, fresh and vital.

The five movement Symphony No. 3, ‘Rhenish’ was actually the last of the four to be composed. The sights and sounds of the Rhineland, including Cologne Cathedral, made a significant impression on Schumann who wrote that the symphony, "... perhaps mirrors here and there something of Rhenish life." The final movement was said to be inspired by the prestigious ceremony for the elevation of Archbishop Geissel to the rank of Cardinal at Cologne Cathedral and was originally entitled ‘In the Character of the Accompaniment to a Solemn Ceremony’.

In the ‘Rhenish’ Muti and the Philharmonia provide noble and immediate playing. There is a granite-like ruggedness to their playing – something of the formidable towering grandeur of Cologne Cathedral. In the endearing Scherzo Muti chooses a steady and deliberate pace yet manages to sustain dramatic interest. I loved the calm and relaxed reading of the third movement Intermezzo that seems to contain a strong nocturnal feel. This is light and thoughtful playing of the highest quality. In the powerful and dramatic reading of the fourth movement, Feierlich one senses a strong current of vital energy and splendour flowing through the music. With its open-air character the final Lebhaft is performed with an unerring sense of purpose and an astutely judged weight and precision all expertly blended with remarkable control. This is an outstanding performance.

Schumann wrote his Symphony No. 4 in 1841 in the aftermath of a nervous breakdown. The score was the last of Schumann’s symphonies to be published and the second to be composed. Dissatisfied with the symphony he revised the score ten years later in 1851. Musicologist and composer Donald Francis Tovey was of the opinion that the symphony was, "…perhaps Schumann’s highest achievement for originality of form and concentration of material." Schumann specified that the four movements of the D minor score were to be played without a break.

With incisive and bold playing this version communicates a dramatically mysterious opening movement, developing the tension wonderfully. The Romanze is Schumann’s shortest movement in a symphony and here Muti positions plenty of space around Schumann’s lyrical themes to provide a feeling of special intimacy. The Scherzo is lovingly moulded with charm and vivid colouring, however, I did find the chosen pace a touch too measured for my preference. In the finale this dramatic and intense interpretation conveys an impressive weight, robust spirit and ideal forward momentum.

The Overture to Die Braut von Messina was based on Schiller’s classical tragedy. Schumann uses a dominant leitmotif to represent the grave curse that wreaks destruction on the House of Messina. Muti and the Philharmonia provide full-bodied and determined playing in this exciting score. Especially notable was the impressive woodwind solo at 5:58-6:23 and the dramatic climax that builds from 6:44 to 7:33.

Composed in 1851 the Overture to Hermann und Dorothea’ is an attractively melodic score based on Goethe's epic poem. The text concerns two lovers struggling against parental opposition set against the background of the French revolution. I estimate that around fifteen percent of the overture contains phrases from the French national anthem La Marseillaise; with its revolutionary associations. The military, march-like opening is immediately evocative of the score’s revolutionary links. Muti and the Philharmonia treat this score as seriously as they would a Schumann masterwork, with tremendous playing.

If I could have only one set of the Schumann symphonies in my collection it would delight me to have these. However, I will not neglect the fascinating and stimulating period instrument accounts from John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique on Deutsche Grammophon Archiv Produktion 457 591-2. I also have great affection for the compelling modern instrument set from Wolfgang Sawallisch with the Staatskapelle Dresden on EMI 57768-2.

It is good to have this highly impressive double set of the Schumann symphonies from Riccardo Muti on EMI Classics back in the catalogues. The concise booklet notes from Malcolm MacDonald are interesting and informative. In addition I was extremely pleased with the clear and well balanced sound quality. Muti’s superb performances and the top quality sound make this a set that I recommend with confidence.

Michael Cookson

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