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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No. 1 in B flat major, Op. 38 (Spring) (1841) [31:29]
Overture: Braut von Messina, Op. 100 (1851) [8:34]
Overture: Genoveva, Op. 81 (1850) [8:18]
"Zwickau Symphony" in G minor (1832-3) [10:44]
Overture, Scherzo and Finale, Op. 52 (1841-5) [17:09]
Swedish Chamber Orchestra/Thomas Dausgaard
rec. Örebro Concert Hall, Sweden, March 2005 (Overture, Scherzo and Finale); October 2006 (Zwickau); December 2006 (overtures); August 2007 (Symphony)
BIS-SACD-1569 [77:36]
Experience Classicsonline

Following their disc of Symphonies 2 and 4, Dausgaard and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra now offer Schumann’s First Symphony with four of his rather less familiar works. The growing number of chamber orchestra recordings of Schumann’s orchestral works represents a laudable trend. The heavy, monumental manner of performing Schumann, now regarded as old-fashioned, often amounts to a disservice to this composer and especially to his much-discussed orchestration. Certainly a very welcome transparency is more likely to be achieved with a smaller string group. Harnoncourt (COE, Teldec), has affectionately brought out the warm, lyrical qualities of this music within a lighter orchestral texture.

Dausgaard has an excellent chamber orchestra at his disposal, allowing him more easily to achieve transparency, yet his general approach could not be described as intimate. On the contrary, the Spring Symphony here receives a virile performance of strong, fiery accents and considerable weight. Indeed, I find a little too much aggression and sometimes over-emphasis, for example in the opening movement. Suggestions of this tendency are found at certain points in the introduction, as the horns and timpani are allowed undue prominence – without any essential musical reason. Admittedly, Schumann quite often marks sforzando here, but Dausgaard interprets these rather fiercely and heavy-handedly. Here and throughout the symphony the horns and brass err on the Wagnerian side, so that we sadly lose sight of the early-Romantic spirit.

On the subject of string sound, I feel that judicious, rather than unvarying, use of vibrato is very desirable, but here it is altogether too sparing – sometimes perversely banished at moments which cry out for expressive warmth. Bare string sound does not lie comfortably with Schumann’s ardently expressive music. Again, at the Allegro molto vivace - surely the molto applies to the vivace, not the allegro? - this performance feels rather driven. Forcefulness and bluster are substituted for warmth. The effect is exhilarating in its own way, but nevertheless I feel it projects too much machismo. Essentially this music is, I would suggest, friendly and genial. Those who disagree, feeling a highly strung impulse behind this music, may find Dausgaard more to their taste. However, even these listeners may find undesirable the squeeze-box effect where Schumann marks forte-pianos and expressive accents in the coda.

In the slow movement the forte-piano markings in the first few bars surely need to be tenderly expressive, whereas Dausgaard treats them quite heavily – almost disruptively. Some listeners will perhaps feel this as Dausgaard’s response to a perceived element of pain in this lyrical outpouring. A quick comparison with Harnoncourt reveals more obvious affection - expressive emphasis rather than bumps.

Dausgaard’s scherzo is incisive and robust, not in the least sluggish, but the principal theme would have benefited from more feeling of tension then release. More problematic is the second trio, strangely lumbering and unconvincing.

Significantly, Schumann includes the word grazioso in the finale’s tempo indication, and this is surely a vital quality – at least in the violin melody following the initial flourish. Dausgaard is reasonably successful here. One of the most original passages in any of Schumann’s symphonies is the cadenza for horns and flute, precursor of so much nature-music in Mahler and others. Here Dausgaard is a little under-characterised and unimaginative. Overall, Dausgaard fails to compete with Sawallisch, Harnoncourt, Bernstein and other great Schumann interpreters.

The Overture, Scherzo and Finale is a work of tremendous buoyancy and charm, but again Dausgaard’s tendency to overdo accents robs the music of some of its natural character. However, his tempo for the central movement – which may initially seem slow - works rather well. It would work even better were it not for a certain stiffness of manner. In Genoveva there is the same tendency to treat expressive emphasis or nuance a little too ruggedly.

It is good to have the late, rarely played overture based on Schiller’s tragedy The Bride of Messina, a work of character and atmosphere but rather unmemorable material. Even more of a collector’s piece, and of little more than curiosity value, is the youthful Zwickau symphonic movement.

In general I am unconvinced that Dausgaard is a natural Schumann conductor, but many eminent conductors have found this composer’s blend of qualities elusive. Hans Gál, in his BBC Music Guide to Schumann’s Symphonies, finds the style "not easy to describe", but nevertheless puts his finger on some important points – "exuberance is certainly a most essential component …" - "his soul is in every expressive phrase he shapes, and the instrument has to sing it in order to do it justice" - "sophisticated rhythmical and harmonic structure … demands a subtlety of shading".

The recording quality of this generously filled disc is as fine as one would expect from BIS.

Philip Borg-Wheeler


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