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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No. 2 in C, Op. 61 (1846) [39:15]
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, Op. 97 “Rhenish” (1850) [34:05]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56 “Scottish” (1842) [36:01]*
Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90 “Italian” (1833) [30:03]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Franz Welser-Möst
rec. Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London, October, 1992; Blackheath Concert Halls, London, *October 1991 and February 1992. DDD
EMI CLASSICS 5209542 [73:36 + 66:27]
Experience Classicsonline

Has the orchestral world had any greater conundrum in recent years than Franz Welser-Möst? Twenty-five years ago, the young Austrian was a rising young star. Then he took on the music directorship of the London Philharmonic while he was still learning the repertory, and got critically slaughtered for it, even picking up the brutally mocking nickname “Frankly Worse Than Most.” Yet now, a quarter century later, he has just led the Cleveland Orchestra through a series of concerts at the Salzburg Festival that has the local critics taunting the Vienna Philharmonic with accusations of being upstaged at their home festival. To be sure, there are still those who intensely dislike the elegant and aloof Welser-Möst, but at this stage in the game, one has to admit that there’s something significant going on with this conductor.
 
This new bargain-priced reissue from EMI gives us an opportunity to revisit some of his earlier recordings, which seem to be coming back into the catalogue in acknowledgement of his returning stature. It combines a disc of two Schumann symphonies with a slightly earlier disc of two Mendelssohn symphonies. What is most striking about these performances is the light, lean orchestral textures, somewhat vitiated in the Schumann by the cloudy sound of Abbey Road Studio No. 1, a frequently used room that rarely yields ideal sound; and more significantly blurred by Blackheath Concert Halls in the Mendelssohn.
 
What I think may have been dismissed fifteen years ago as tentative performances have to be re-evaluated at this point. What was often taken as Welser-Möst being uncertain or afraid to tear into the music hasn’t greatly changed over the years. It has slowly become clear that he’s pursuing a particular philosophical tack. He must look down on punchy, swashbuckling performances with a certain disdain. Rather, Welser-Möst is being quietly bold, offering his musicians the opportunity to join with him in animating the music instead of brow-beating it into them. One can sense that in these early recordings, the London Philharmonic, used to being pushed by Solti or pulled by Tennstedt, are often hesitant to take the rein the conductor is allowing them. For an early example of Welser-Möst’s understatement turning into a spontaneous upwelling of something very special indeed, one must listen to his live LPO performance of Bruckner’s Fifth from a Linz concert in 1993 or even parts of his Mahler Fourth from 1988. I have also heard remarkable performances in recent years live in Cleveland (Shostakovich 14, Bruckner 5, Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs, Death and Transfiguration, Vaughan Williams: Dona Nobis Pacem, H. K. Gruber: Frankenstein), though I have also heard somewhere the orchestra remained uncertain how far they should push (Beethoven 6, Mahler 7, Brahms 1).
 
The Schumann Second is hit and miss. As Schumann’s most ambitious symphony, it is the one that arguably most needs steering by the conductor. Yet Welser-Möst’s hands-off approach is an effective riposte to the sort of over-fussy shenanigans that have been heaped on this music by conductors as distinguished as Toscanini, Mitropoulos, Reiner and Szell. Even Bernstein, who declined to heavily touch up the orchestration, was very interventionist in his molding of phrases. In recent years, period instrument groups and historically-informed performance practices have led to lighter and faster renditions of this music, giving it freshness, even if they miss the emotional punch this music can carry. Welser-Möst takes a middle path, sifting the textures of Schumann’s original score to keep it buoyant and light, but not pushing the tempos to extremes. This works best in the Adagio espressivo, which floats with lyrical grace to the heights. Surprisingly, Welser-Möst may have hit upon the solution to the troublesome fugue passage in the middle of the movement, where so many conductors try to make it move along lucidly. Welser-Möst, rather, lets the notes fall listlessly, which works remarkably well. One can picture Schumann turning from his introspective ecstasy and looking out at the workaday world and feeling no desire to join into its busy-work. And so he slips back into his reverie. The preceding Scherzo is less successful. The restless movement needs nervous energy to propel it along, and Welser-Möst is far too elegant and reserved to offer nervous energy. The first and last movements are well-groomed but spacious, neither hurrying nor worrying, which seems too general an approaching to this highly-charged music. Welser-Möst tries an interesting variant reading at the end. Schumann’s score calls for a trill (drum roll) in the next-to-last measure of the timpani. This note is tied to the next note. But, curiously, Schumann did not include a wavy line indicating that this drum-roll was to be held out through the final chord. A lot of conductors go ahead and do that, assuming that it was a mistake. Zubin Mehta had his Vienna Philharmonic timpanist play the first measure as a roll, stopping on a single note for the second measure, giving his recording the curious effect of having a drum roll that stops too soon. Christoph von Dohnányi has his Cleveland player hold the trill all the way through, hitting a single ringing note as the orchestra cuts off, also a somewhat curious effect. Most curiously—but most accurately reproducing the score—Welser-Möst has his player execute a single, short drum roll, then just let it ring out for the duration of the final chord. Is this what Schumann intended?
 
The Schumann Rhenish Symphony goes in and out of focus. The first movement is reserved to a fault, with the almost palpable sense in some places that the orchestra is looking askance at Welser-Möst, wanting more forceful indications from him, which he declines to give. But in the playfully rolling Scherzo, the players enjoy themselves and come up with something more satisfying, particularly with the upwelling near the end of the movement, which sounds very natural and spontaneous here. The following Nicht schnell movement is refreshing in its unaffected manner. As much as I have enjoyed the interventionist work of Bernstein in Schumann, his precious manner can get a touch annoying in this simple yet elusive movement. Welser-Möst simply lets the strings and winds sing without tempo and phrasing manipulations. The tempo is more moderate than the somewhat impatient Dohnányi recording, which in some ways is the Schumann Third for those who don’t like the traditional approach to the piece. Welser-Möst isn’t exactly traditional, due to his reserve, but he doesn’t waste effort trying to re-invent the wheel, either. The fourth movement, inspired by a cathedral procession, is often used by conductors as a platform for scenery-chewing theatrics. Welser-Möst rejects the high theatrics, making a more subdued impact, relating the music more to the fog-shrouded darkness of the opening and closing moments of Strauss’ Alpine Symphony. Thus the majestic fanfares toward the end sound gentle, like brief sunbeams breaking through the clouds instead of Wagnerian interjections. The quiet return of darkness is moving. I can’t help but think Schumann would have appreciated Welser-Möst’s sensitive handling of the movement. The finale is again gentle and playful, not at all driven nor pulled about in tempo. Accents and note values are carefully shaped to keep Schumann’s rich orchestration from congealing, and this is where Welser-Möst’s quiet work has to be most appreciated. Though he is reluctant to bully his way about, he nonetheless makes sure that everything is balanced and clarified. Now that Welser-Möst is working with an orchestra on the same wavelength, it would be interesting hearing this music now in Cleveland, to hear if the orchestra would make greater use of the leeway this conductor gives.
 
Perhaps more suitable to Welser-Möst’s natural reserve, the music of Mendelssohn on the second disc comes off better. The opening of the Scottish Symphony is searching, all of its accents observed and not glossed over. The main body of the movement is fleet and lithe, with the conductor taking care to make sure the clarinet doesn’t get smothered by the strings in the first theme. Welser-Möst skips the first movement repeat, which may bother some, though it doesn’t bother me, considering the movement’s overall dramatic shape. This music, so unambiguously stormy, draws plenty of agitated energy from the orchestra here, though without the brazen edge of Solti’s Chicago reading on Decca, which is further juiced up by a rather close-up recording. This EMI recording, from Blackheath Concert Halls, is more spacious, but less clear because of the distant pick-up. The Scherzo really catches fire; indeed, Welser-Möst has to rein the players in as they start to pick up speed going into the final climax. It’s a good example of how this restrained conductor can let high-spirits be injected into a performance by the orchestra and then keep it from running amok with a deft flick or two of the baton. The Adagio is more urgent and warlike than most, without stinting on the loveliness of the main theme. I prefer this to the heavy, slow approach taken by Solti and Abbado, who seem intent on making it into a Mahlerian epic slow movement. Welser-Möst’s timing (less than nine minutes) fits more naturally into the rest of the work. The Allegro vivacissimo finale is swift and a little clipped here. Though the LPO’s energy remains high, the clipped treatment keeps it restrained. Likewise, Welser-Möst keeps the horns from hooping it up in the majestic coda, which he keeps moving along at a fast pace. I think it’s pretty much what Mendelssohn had in mind, though I must confess a guilty pleasure in an earlier recording made by the London Symphony in the early 1980s under the baton of guest conductor Riccardo Chailly. If Welser-Möst can seem relentlessly tasteful, Chailly has no compunction about thumping the tub, treating the finale operatically, and taking the coda slowly and grandly, letting the horns blare with vulgar joy. To the best of my knowledge that Philips recording has never been issued on CD. For an approach similar to Welser-Möst’s but in more vivid recorded sound, one might consider the Herbert Blomstedt recording from San Francisco which Decca made around the same time.
 
The Italian Symphony was recorded a few months later in the same venue, but it sounds as if a different microphone setup was used, in an attempt to get more resonance. More resonance is indeed achieved here, but at the expense of further clarity. One almost has to listen “through” the hall sound to appreciate the clarity of textures being achieved by conductor and orchestra. The first movement is upbeat without being hectically pushed, which is so often the case. Again, Welser-Möst holds the reins lightly, letting the orchestra romp without pressing them forward. The pilgrim’s processional of the slow movement flows nicely, with mournfully intertwined flutes. Happily, Welser-Möst keeps the third movement interlude flowing forward with a similar mixture of elegance and restlessness, which helps keep the movement focused, something which doesn’t happen in slower renditions such as Sinopoli’s, Solti’s and Blomstedt’s. And most happily of all, Welser-Möst sets a fast but not scrambling tempo for the Saltarello finale. I have grown very tired over the years of hearing performances that are so fast the opening theme in the flutes can’t even be discerned. Guilty parties include Szell, Dohnányi, Abbado, Solti, Blomstedt, Haitink and Gardiner. Of course, the problem in this recording is that although the tempo is sane (Mendelssohn wrote “presto,” not “prestissimo”!) the recorded sound pretty much obliterates those poor flutes anyway. For the finest balance of tempo, energy and vivid but clear sound, Charles Munch’s early stereo version with the Boston Symphony for RCA still holds sway, especially in its three-channel SACD remastering. Amazing that with a performance barely faster than six minutes, Munch can suggest about three times more excitement than his frantic colleagues.
 
Those who have these Welser-Möst recordings in earlier incarnations need not replace them with this issue, as no remastering has been attempted to improve the problematic sound. Best of all would be to hear these works performed now, with the conductor more secure in technique and an orchestra that is willing to meet him half way. Who knows, on the right night, perhaps magic will strike.
 
Mark Sebastian Jordan
 

 


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