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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No.2 in C major Op.61 (1845-46) [35:21]
Overture to ‘Scenes from Goethe’s Faust’ (1853) [7:38]
Julius Caesar, Overture Op.128 (1851) [8:25]
Symphony No.4 in D minor Op.120 (original version, 1841) [23:40]
Swedish Chamber Orchestra/Thomas Dausgaard
rec. March 2005 (Symphony No.2); March 2006, Örebro Concert Hall, Sweden.
BIS SACD-1519 [75:54]

This is the first of an attractive-looking new project from BIS, a five CD series called ‘Opening Doors’. Thomas Dausgaard, who has been associated with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra for the last ten years, will “explore a wide range of romantic symphonic music”. The booklet notes reveal that works by Dvořák and Schubert are in the pipeline, as well as the rest of the Schumann symphonies. Dausgaard wants to ‘open the doors into the possibility of hearing this music in a different way.’ The idea of performing these Schumann works with a chamber orchestra is not entirely new, although there seem to be few such versions in the current catalogue. Dausgaard says that “all the difficulties of balance … with a full sized orchestra disappeared”, so perhaps all of those moans about Schumann’s weaknesses in  orchestration can be thrown out with these new recordings.
Indeed, there is a lightness and manoeuvrability about these performances which is bright and attractive. The Swedish Chamber orchestra play on modern instruments, but have adapted timpani and trumpets to a more contemporary style. The stylistic application of non-vibrato strings where appropriate lends an ‘authentic’ or period feel. I unearthed my Collins Classics CD of The Authentic Orchestra (on period instruments) conducted by Derek Solomons to compare, and found the effect to be fairly similar. There are different colours from the instruments, but with the lighter sound of gut strings the balance seems to concur with the reduced forces of the SCO.
The recordings are to the usual high standard from BIS. With first and second strings set at left and right on the soundstage there is plenty of information about the sometimes antiphonal writing in Symphony No. 2, written while Schumann was immersed in studies of J.S. Bach. This follows the seating plan of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1839 and has been accepted as convention by many orchestras in this repertoire. Technically the orchestra is largely on top of the demands made of them, but reducing the strings always increases the risk of exposing any weaknesses in some of those insanely difficult passages. I’m not overly keen on the second violins’ management of their answering passages in the second Scherzo movement, 30 seconds in and later – they seem fractionally late and never quite able to catch up. This is something which the SACD recording seems almost to emphasise, with the seconds out on something of a limb, even listening in stereo. I do love the orchestral sound in the darting sections of the central sections in this movement – like a kitten playing with scrunched up paper, it’s filled with ‘aaaww’ and unexpectedness at the same time. The Adagio espressivo is heartrending in its subtly simple sensitivity. Dausgaard brings everything possible out of the well-shaped notes, lovely solos and long lyrical arches in this movement. The strings are once again put to the test in the chasing scales near the beginning of the Allegro molto vivace and seem to shrink back into the mix, hiding behind the winds during the worst parts of the musical storm breaking over them. The drama is convincingly portrayed however, with some chunky bass lines and wide contrasts in dynamic and articulation.
The rousing end of the Symphony No. 2 is balanced by the angst-ridden opening of the Julius Caesar overture. Both of the overtures in this programme are late Schumann, and Dausgaard, in the interview style booklet notes, suggests that the perceived weaknesses in these works are due to misunderstanding of their content. “They are strange, unique pieces; and it’s absurd to compare them with so-called ‘normality’”. With the dark nature of their origins thus acknowledged, Dausgaard gives us performances which revel in the worlds they create. Dramatic but sometimes disjointed passages and strangely inchoate melodic lines are given full fervour and expressive value, and we are taken along into the ‘workings of a hypersensitive mind’, but one which is on an inevitable collision course with distressing dissolution.
Schumann’s Symphony No.4 was in fact his second in this form. The premiere was something of a disaster however, with Mendelssohn withdrawing as conductor at the last minute. Schumann kept the work hidden for over ten years, returning to it for revisions in 1851. Even Brahms noted that the work had gained nothing by having been messed around with however. With the original 1841 version Dausgaard felt the experience, especially with a chamber orchestra, to be a revelation. Schumann’s later doublings and alterations to the links between the movements don’t add materially to the message in the music, but listening to Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s recording of the later version put into direct competition with the original on his Archiv set, you can hear how convincing it can be in the right hands. Dausgaard is lighter than most as you might expect, but can still create gestures on the grand scale which Schumann had in mind. The main advantage is in the chamber-music like passages, which gain in intimacy, and therefore in contrast with the full tutti sound of the orchestra. What Dausgaard and his players do manage to put across is the sheer joy of life and creativity which Schumann put into this symphony, and if their Allegro vivace in the finale leaves you without a secret inner smile and a spring in your step, then you’ve missed out somewhere along the line.
Dominy Clements




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