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 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
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.