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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony no.2 in C, op.61
Symphony no.4 in D minor op.120
Philadelphia Orchestra/James Levine
Recorded 1977 and 1978 (no further details given)
BMG RCA RED SEAL 82876 55305 2 [67:54]

 

This recording is dominated by the steely brilliance of the Philadelphia strings, or more specifically its violins. This orchestra has always been celebrated for the power and sumptuousness of its strings, though I have found this to be a mixed blessing. The dominance of string tone can cause important detail elsewhere to be lost, and the insistent glitter can be tiring on the ear. I suspect recording engineers have sometimes been seduced by the fame of these strings into over-emphasising that section of the orchestra, and that may well have been the case here.

All of which is a pity, because these are distinguished performances, conducted by a man who was reaching maturity as an interpreter, at a time when he had recently been put in charge of the New York Met. And of course he was a student of none other than George Szell, who was without peer in this music.

Enjoyable, then, and good to be reminded once more of what a terrific piece the Second Symphony is – much finer than the Fourth, which, for all its formal originality is for me a rather dull, monochrome sort of work. Not surprisingly, the Fourth is actually the earlier work, having been composed in 1841. The Second followed in 1846, though he did revise the Fourth, finishing it in its final form in 1853.

The Second Symphony has a motto theme, which turns up in three of the four movements, and is simply a rising fifth in the trumpets. Its function isn’t particularly clear; after its announcement at the very start, it turns up at climactic points in the first movement, scherzo and finale. It does, I suppose, act as a kind of signal that matters are reaching a head and that the end is in sight.

The scherzo is famous, or notorious perhaps, in the sense that it is quite extraordinarily difficult to play, with a fiendish moto perpetuo in the strings, interrupted by the two trios. (Incidentally this may be in part why this lovely symphony gets strangely few performances). The Philadelphia string section does come into its own here; this is really thrilling, with the sudden cranking up of the tempo in the coda (not requested by the composer!) exerting a kind of ‘G-force’, as one can experience in a seriously fast car when the foot goes flat down on the floor.

The heart of the work, as the brief but reasonably informative notes tell us, is the Adagio espressivo. It really is one of the finest and most beautiful things Schumann wrote, with a sustained eloquence that brings some magical moments as well as some heady climaxes. If by any chance you don’t know this movement, please give it a try.

As I’ve said above, the Fourth is, for me, a less loveable work, though it does have one strikingly original moment, which is the slow introduction to the finale, with its solemn key-changes and stirring brass chorales. Throughout both works, Levine shows a sure sense of the phrasing and architecture of the music, and, given the reservations about the recorded string sound above, his players respond superbly.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

 

 



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