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Robert SCHUMANN (1810 – 1856)
Symphony No. 1 in B Flat major The Spring, Op. 38 (1831)
Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Op. 61 (1848)
Symphony No. 3 in E Flat The Rhenish Op.97 (1850)
Symphony No. 4 in D Minor, Op.120 (1851)
Tonhalle Orchestra, Zurich/David Zinman
Recorded 13 – 16 October 2003 in the Tonhalle, Zurich.
ARTE NOVA 82876 57743-2 [65.39 + 57.38]

Hot on the heels of the Beethoven and Strauss series, Arte Nova has now released Zinman’s interpretations of the four symphonies of Robert Schumann. This set comes into direct competition with the recently released Barenboim/Berlin Staatskapelle. Is there a winner between these two – emphatically no! Whether you will respond to either will depend upon your approach to Schumann. If you see him as a composer of the central German romantic repertoire, Barenboim is probably the one for you. If however you see Schumann as a radical, a bit of a firebrand, pushing back the barriers of symphonic thought, then Zinman is definitely for you.

In fact the Arte Nova is a bit of a one-off. If you are a member of the period band community typified by John Eliot Gardiner, even his set sounds highly romantic when compared to Zinman. Zinman is like a breath of fresh air– the performances live and breathe life. Would that other modern conductors could get their orchestras to play like this. If you have enjoyed the Zinman Beethoven symphony cycle, also on Arte Nova, then this is a set which you will covet.

In addition this is not even at full price. Cheap it may be but it would compete with alternative sets at any price. It was the same with the Beethoven Symphonies and they have sold many many copies.

Hard timpani sticks are used throughout, and this is about the only concession to period performance style. The remaining instruments in the orchestra are normal modern items.

The symphony, in the eyes of Schumann, was a type of work which needed much thought and time. He was twenty when he first contemplated writing a symphony, and thirty when he started in earnest. The influence of Beethoven, who had developed the form to such an extent, prevented or hindered many other composers from trying to write their own examples. So it was with Schumann. He was brought out of the dark by the twofold influences of Mendelssohn and Schubert. He had himself discovered the latter’s 9th symphony and the preparatory work he did on this symphony, pulled him out of his torpor and prepared him for writing his own symphonic works.

He wrote his First Symphony "The Spring" in four days and completed the orchestration in a further four weeks. Forget previously-heard statements about Schumann’s inability to orchestrate – played like this, there is absolutely no evidence of this shortcoming. The semi-programme in this work was later disowned by the composer who wished simply to evoke the feelings of the coming of the spring which in the 1800s was a much more important awakening to the population than it is to us now.

Symphony No. 2 has long been a favourite among lovers of Schumann’s symphonies. This is primarily as a result of the glorious slow movement which, in many conductors’ hands is made to sound romantic (in other words soupy). Here it is played simply. At first I was taken aback by this but I have now reset my ideas, and have responded to its beautiful straightforwardness. Schumann wrote the Second Symphony in the middle of a serious bout of depression, although it certainly does not sound it, except, perhaps, for the profound melancholy of the famous adagio.

Schumann was appointed Music Director in Dusseldorf in 1850 and this began a period of relative happiness for the composer. In the composer’s original notes to accompany the first performance, the symphony was described as a sound picture of the Rhineland, and its inhabitants. The overall nature of the symphony is that of joy and in this performance one is in no doubt that joy is the overriding character. There are whooping horns at the outset and this exuberance follows throughout the work.

The Fourth Symphony, beloved of both Karajan and Furtwängler was in fact the second symphony he completed. At its first performance it was completely upstaged by the presence of both Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann as piano soloists at the concert, so much so that the composer’s publishers refused to take it on board. Schumann set it aside and started work on The Rhenish. When this received acclaim he took out the fourth symphony and did some further work on it, converting it into a one movement "symphonic fantasy" which was later put to one side again. Zinman and his orchestra give this more serious symphony its due weight. It completes a superb set of two discs which I urge you to try, even if you already own a competing set. This one is sufficiently different that I am sure that you will be impressed with it.

Recording quality is superb, as are the programme notes giving, in addition to the usual blurb, the players’ names of the orchestra by symphony so that the exact personnel involved in each work may be ascertained. This is nice for the performers, but of only passing interest to the general buyer.

John Phillips


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