These EMI triples are tremendous value. Like all savvy record
companies EMI have taken from their back catalogue a swathe of
perfectly good, if not always top-flight, performances, repackaged
them as “complete” surveys of repertoire and released them at
budget price. Often the quality far outweighs the price, such
as Jansons’ Rachmaninov set, and some sets have brought performances
back from the CD graveyard, like Sawallisch’s Brahms Symphonies.
This set of Schumann’s symphonies and concertos is tremendous
value for money, appealing on every level in a competitive field.
exception of Christian Zacharias, I had never come across any
of the performers here, but there are no disappointments with
any of them. Vonk is a committed and characterful Schumann interpreter.
He prefers fast speeds, most notably in the first movement of
the Piano Concerto which feels disarmingly fast on first hearing.
On the whole he balances drama and lyricism well. These performances
are live in a good way: there is a real sense of excitement
and joy-in-the-moment that only live recordings bring, but there
is no detriment to sound quality and there is no obtrusive audience
noise. The feel of the symphonies is so attractive that I found
myself missing the atmosphere when I listened to the Cello Concerto,
the only item (save the Manfred overture) in the set
which is not live. It holds together well, with a lovely lyricism
in its slow movement, though the finale is pacy and exciting.
It lacks the extra zing of a live performance, but there is
nothing to complain about.
are all given performances that are interesting and at times
exciting. The Spring showcases the great acoustic of
the hall in its opening fanfare. The sustained introduction
proceeds grandly and the main allegro unfolds exuberantly
under Vonk’s sprightly tempo. The slow movement is lovely, while
the chorale at its close, presaging the Scherzo’s theme, sounds
genuinely ominous and takes one aback. The Scherzo itself feels
like a refined dance of the Spring deities, while the finale
bustles happily with a genuine sense of joy and youth that Schumann
would surely have intended. Number 2 has similar success in
its first movement, with a nice contrast between the sostenuto
first movement and the allegro which follows, though
the rest of the symphony is not perhaps quite as characterful
as its opening. The Rhenish is superb. The start of the
first movement bursts onto the scene with sudden majesty, like
a flotilla leaving harbour, and it doesn’t let up for the next
nine minutes. The second and third movements feel like well
suited partners, refined and poised, while there is a real sense
of space and solemnity around the remarkable Feierlich.
The finale has a good sense of pace to it that makes it feel
like a fitting conclusion. Perhaps the most successful symphony,
however, is Number 4, which is judged superbly in terms of its
overall structure. Vonk balances the dual nature of this work
of youth, returned to in maturity, and the stormy feeling of
the first movement serves to increase the sense of contrast
in the slow movement. More than in any other symphony, the finale
here feels like it is the natural culmination of an argument:
Vonk lays the foundation of the finale’s main theme at the end
of the first movement, thereby underlining the sense of fulfillment
and exuberance when it bursts onto the scene at the start of
the fourth. The playing is superb throughout, the acoustic is
warm and the audience is very well behaved.
Concerto is given a really distinguished performance. As mentioned
before, one is at first taken aback by the pace of the first
movement, but no-one lets this get in the way of great music-making,
and in many ways it brings a fresh sense of discovery to this
most familiar of works. The Intermezzo is gently and unassuming,
and the finale is quite superb. Zacharias brings a really refreshing
lilt to the rhythm of the main theme and, thanks to Vonk’s light
touch with the orchestra, there is a real feel of the dance
about this movement. Manfred
broods ominously to complete the set.
So while this set may not be in the top
flight with the likes of Gardiner and Harnoncourt it is perfectly
satisfactory and most enjoyable as a set in its own right, particularly
when one takes in the convincing matter of the price. The sound
is top-notch throughout, though you’ll have to look elsewhere
if you want exposition repeats: Vonk includes them for No. 4 but