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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)

Symphony No. 2 in C, Op. 61 (1846) [37.24]
Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120 (1853) [30.42]*
Orchestre des Champs-Elysées/Philippe Herreweghe
rec. Cité des Congrès, Nantes, January 1996; *Salle Wagram, Paris, December 1996

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It would be easy enough to trot out all the usual critical clichés for Philippe Herreweghe's period-practice Schumann: the clear, relatively lightweight sonority of the Champs-Elysées orchestra permits wind detail more easily to register, allows for more mobile tempi, and so forth. All this would be true - and, ultimately, beside the point. It is rather Herreweghe's musicality and energy - traits hardly restricted to musicologists! - that make this recording, and some of his others, special.

The Second Symphony is an excellent case in point. The slow introduction flows easily at an Andante-ish tempo, so the ear more easily follows the music's progress and takes in its overall structure. Yet, both here and in the similarly paced Adagio - which eschews straining at metaphysical "depths" - the purposeful shaping of the long phrases with gradual crescendos and diminuendos produces a sense of weight and importance comparable to that of standard performances. The main theme of the first-movement Allegro doubles strings and winds, save for a single bar allotted just to the strings; that momentary contrast becomes quite striking here. The Scherzo runs its course with assurance: the violins manage, with the subtlest inflections, to mark off individual phrases within this moto perpetuo-style writing without disturbing the pulse, an effect duplicated in their running legato ribbons in the blazing Finale.

The Fourth benefits from similar ministrations. Herreweghe captures the music's taut drama as well as do the best "modern" performances - my dark horse favorite is the Kubelik/Sony - while giving the music's lyrical side its due. At times, his reading sounds uncommonly relaxed. The first movement brings moments of almost becalmed repose, offering a respite from the surrounding turbulence. In the codas of both outer movements, the Champs-Elysées players undoubtedly could have handled conventionally driven tempi better than, say, Muti's frazzled Philharmonia (EMI), but Herreweghe's less pushed treatment is shapely as well as propulsive. The Romanze sings sweetly, as does its reminiscence in the incisive Scherzo.

Too frequently, historically informed performances of the standard repertoire offer little beyond a "different" sound. Not in this case, though: Herreweghe makes us hear these scores afresh, simultaneously projecting their full symphonic stature. Warmly recommended, especially in this midpriced guise. Harmonia Mundi gives the timing as 66.15, cheating itself by a few minutes.

Stephen Francis Vasta

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