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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
CD 1 [63:50]
Symphony No. 1 in B flat, Op. 38 “Spring” (1841) [31:54]
Symphony No. 3 in E flat, Op. 97 “Rhenish” (1850) [31:28]
CD 2 [66:38]
Symphony No. 2 in C, Op. 61 (1845-46) [35:44]
Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120 (1841) [30:26]
CD 3 [65:23]
Manfred Overture, Op. 115 (1849) [11:31]
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54 (1841) [29:13]
Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129 (1850) [24:39]
Christian Zacharias (piano); Truls Mřrk (cello)
Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester/Hans Vonk
rec. 1991-1994, Philharmonie, Cologne (all live except Manfred and Cello Concerto)
EMI CLASSICS TRIPLE 2153102 [63:50 + 66:38 + 65:23]


Experience Classicsonline

These EMI triples are tremendous value. Like all savvy record companies EMI have taken from their back catalogue a swathe of perfectly good, if not always top-flight, performances, repackaged them as “complete” surveys of repertoire and released them at budget price. Often the quality far outweighs the price, such as Jansons’ Rachmaninov set, and some sets have brought performances back from the CD graveyard, like Sawallisch’s Brahms Symphonies. This set of Schumann’s symphonies and concertos is tremendous value for money, appealing on every level in a competitive field.

With the exception of Christian Zacharias, I had never come across any of the performers here, but there are no disappointments with any of them. Vonk is a committed and characterful Schumann interpreter. He prefers fast speeds, most notably in the first movement of the Piano Concerto which feels disarmingly fast on first hearing. On the whole he balances drama and lyricism well. These performances are live in a good way: there is a real sense of excitement and joy-in-the-moment that only live recordings bring, but there is no detriment to sound quality and there is no obtrusive audience noise. The feel of the symphonies is so attractive that I found myself missing the atmosphere when I listened to the Cello Concerto, the only item (save the Manfred overture) in the set which is not live. It holds together well, with a lovely lyricism in its slow movement, though the finale is pacy and exciting. It lacks the extra zing of a live performance, but there is nothing to complain about. 

The symphonies are all given performances that are interesting and at times exciting. The Spring showcases the great acoustic of the hall in its opening fanfare. The sustained introduction proceeds grandly and the main allegro unfolds exuberantly under Vonk’s sprightly tempo. The slow movement is lovely, while the chorale at its close, presaging the Scherzo’s theme, sounds genuinely ominous and takes one aback. The Scherzo itself feels like a refined dance of the Spring deities, while the finale bustles happily with a genuine sense of joy and youth that Schumann would surely have intended. Number 2 has similar success in its first movement, with a nice contrast between the sostenuto first movement and the allegro which follows, though the rest of the symphony is not perhaps quite as characterful as its opening. The Rhenish is superb. The start of the first movement bursts onto the scene with sudden majesty, like a flotilla leaving harbour, and it doesn’t let up for the next nine minutes. The second and third movements feel like well suited partners, refined and poised, while there is a real sense of space and solemnity around the remarkable Feierlich. The finale has a good sense of pace to it that makes it feel like a fitting conclusion. Perhaps the most successful symphony, however, is Number 4, which is judged superbly in terms of its overall structure. Vonk balances the dual nature of this work of youth, returned to in maturity, and the stormy feeling of the first movement serves to increase the sense of contrast in the slow movement. More than in any other symphony, the finale here feels like it is the natural culmination of an argument: Vonk lays the foundation of the finale’s main theme at the end of the first movement, thereby underlining the sense of fulfillment and exuberance when it bursts onto the scene at the start of the fourth. The playing is superb throughout, the acoustic is warm and the audience is very well behaved. 

The Piano Concerto is given a really distinguished performance. As mentioned before, one is at first taken aback by the pace of the first movement, but no-one lets this get in the way of great music-making, and in many ways it brings a fresh sense of discovery to this most familiar of works. The Intermezzo is gently and unassuming, and the finale is quite superb. Zacharias brings a really refreshing lilt to the rhythm of the main theme and, thanks to Vonk’s light touch with the orchestra, there is a real feel of the dance about this movement. Manfred broods ominously to complete the set. 

So while this set may not be in the top flight with the likes of Gardiner and Harnoncourt it is perfectly satisfactory and most enjoyable as a set in its own right, particularly when one takes in the convincing matter of the price. The sound is top-notch throughout, though you’ll have to look elsewhere if you want exposition repeats: Vonk includes them for No. 4 but nowhere else.

Simon Thompson


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