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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No.3 in E-flat major (Rhenish) Op.97 (1850) [29:08]
Overture to Manfred Op.115 (1848) [11:07]
Hermann und Dorothea, Overture Op.126 (1851) [8:53]
Symphony No.4 in D minor Op.120 (final version, 1851) [26:17]
Swedish Chamber Orchestra/Thomas Dausgaard
rec. October 2006 (Manfred), and May, August 2007, Örebro Concert Hall, Sweden.
BIS-SACD-1619 [76:30]


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This release brings to a conclusion a three disc cycle of Schumann symphonies and overtures from the Swedish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. As is now the norm for complete sets, the original 1841 version of the Symphony No.4 is supplemented by the inclusion of the 1851 revision, or vice versa, depending on your reference. Sharp eyed readers will also note that Schumann’s final complete symphony is in fact the 1850 Symphony No.3, written not long after the composer had taken up the position of municipal director of music in Düsseldorf.

The subtitle ‘Rhenish’ was not Schumann’s idea, but contemporary accounts do acknowledge the Rhineland landscapes and people as a source of inspiration for the piece. The fresh, open sounding themes and lyrical nature of much of the music certainly has a feeling of warmth and affection, and the intimate chamber orchestra setting in this recording has the tendency to enhance this aspect of the piece. Commentators have sometimes indicated unease with the lack of immediacy and expression in Dausgaard’s approach, minimising vibrato and presenting a rather detached string sound. This is arguably a problem with this set, but in taking the moods and dramas of the music on their own terms and allowing the music to speak for itself as much as possible there are numerous other issues which fall away as a result. I personally quite like the sense of unencumbered clarity which Dausgaard achieves, and the clear commitment and technical excellence of the players throughout this and the other recordings carries us through where other versions might indeed give us more overt passion and fire.

The winds and brass certainly pack a considerable punch, and play a significant part in the character of the SCO ‘sound’. The fascinating relationship between ‘baroque’ strings and sharply etched winds is explored in the Overture to ‘Manfred’, which, as with Tchaikovsky’s example, takes its inspiration from Byron’s literary hero. The programmatic content of the piece results in a rich and complex brew of significance in terms of themes, but as with the symphonies, Dausgaard’s light-footedness allows the quality aspects of the music to speak with disarming directness. Clara Schumann admired this piece as “one of Robert’s most poetic and most gripping”, and the composer also considered it one of his “strongest children”. This performance does nothing to dissuade the listener of this overture’s status as one of Schumann’s most significant.

Hermann und Dorothea was intended as the opening to a large scale vocal-dramatic work based on Goethe’s verse epic of the same name. After initial enthusiasm, the subsequent vacillations between different concepts for the work meant that its chances of completion in any form soon dwindled. The overture was however completed swiftly, and in the same period as the revisions for the Symphony No.4. The aspects of the French Revolution in which the story is set chime through in quotations from the Marseillaise, and Schumann’s interpretation of Goethe’s text seems to indicate a considerable departure from the original, with plenty of restless forward momentum seeking to escape the more contemplative original.

In his booklet notes for this release, Horst A. Scholz comments that “this is not the place to pursue the sometimes irreconcilable arguments about which of the two versions [of the Symphony No.4] are preferable.” Having neatly sidestepped all controversy, he does however balance the criticism levelled against the original version with Brahms’s remarks on the revised version as being ‘too bulky and garish’. My own opinion is that the power of suggestion will point people’s view on such things with all the reliability of a weather-vane in a hurricane. Having read Brahms’s sage comments, we all nod in disapproving judgment of the material added to the later version, at the same time tutting at Schumann’s earlier “lack of firmness of approach [or] calm, clear working out of ideas, everything seeming forced and cluttered – more like a promising sketch than a finished work”, to paraphrase the famous criticism of that ‘Leipzig critic’. Refraining from putting the two versions back to back, and leaving a considerate space of time between airings, I often find it quite hard to put my finger on the differences between the two. Looking at the timings of the movements from this cycle we see about a minute and a half added to the first movement, maybe 30 seconds or so to the Scherzo, but over two minutes to the finale. The Italian tempo instructions for each movement are substituted for more weighty German indications, and the final version does have the greater sense of grandeur. This is however an aspect of the original for which I don’t find myself yearning, and if asked for my ‘desert island’ choice I would take the unencumbered innocence of the original version every time. The easy way in which negative criticism is levelled at new music or art of any kind is a problem in any period. The sensitivity of the artist in responding, first with an extended hibernation, and subsequently with a considerable amount of valuable time expended on an old work, is something none of us need find particularly stimulating as a corner of musical history.

Either way, Dausgaard and the SCO’s fleetness and rhythmic bounce make this work into an attractive prospect in both versions, and you can take your pick depending on your own mood. There are certainly bigger-boned recordings available, and if the chamber orchestra scale bothers you then there are plenty of more ‘Symphonic’ performances on record. As David Zinman’s recent set on Arte Nova shows however, the trend is more towards a lighter and more transparent view of these works, and in this Dausgaard’s results are second to none. The BIS recording is excellent, and well up to this label’s usual high standards both in terms of clarity and dynamics. I always enjoy the added SACD space – which in BIS’s case almost always suffused with gorgeous acoustic depth and subtle, realistically enhanced sound-staging.

Dominy Clements 


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