After Beethovenís Ninth whither the German symphony? Until Brahms
(1876) it goes into a downward spiral and disappears off the
radar. Carl Dahlhaus dismisses everything between. Wagner had
already pronounced it dead - so long live the music-drama! The
problem was largely due to great expectations. Everybody following
Beethoven was expected by audiences to carry on where he left
off. In other words a fledgling symphonist felt obliged to produce
something which topped the Ninth - an impossible challenge.
There were actually a lot of symphonies being written between
1826 and 1876, the half-century during which the symphonic poem
(Lisztís invention) developed from the concert overture and
challenged the classical format symphony for supremacy in concert
programmes. The obvious riposte to the question of who dared
to write symphonies after Beethoven would be Mendelssohn and
Schumann. The question was Schubertís nightmare which he met
more than adequately, but whose symphonies were heard only much
later, the Ninth in 1839, the rest appearing only from the 1860s.
True, neither Mendelssohn nor Schumann excelled in the form;
neither was in his natural habitat. Mendelssohnís genius lay
in his concert overtures, choral works and chamber music; Schumannís
in lieder, solo piano and chamber music. Mendelssohnís best
symphonies were No. 3 and No. 4, of which the former was hailed
at once while the latter was withheld by the composer after
one performance and only played and published after his death.
Schumannís four are pretty even in quality. Both composers wrote
their symphonies during the 1840s, Schumann taking over from
Mendelssohn - and creeping by a year into the 1850s. He was
inspired to start after discovering Schubertís Ninth in Vienna
in 1839 and hearing it a year later under Mendelssohn in Leipzig.
After 1851 it all goes quiet for a number of reasons until the
mid-1860s, after which symphonic production goes through a massive
crescendo leading to Brahmsís First in 1876.
These are important facts when it comes to listening to Schumannís
symphonies. Their contextual place in musical history is vital
to their assessment. They represent a continual search for a
developmental path, whether to go the programmatic route or
adapt the classical format. The former can be heard in Spring,
and The Rhenishís ecclesiastical ceremony in Cologne
Cathedral. The latter conflates the stile antico unearthed
by Mendelssohnís recent Bach revival with the contemporary 1840s
style. Schumann tackles the finale problem in the second, expands
to a five-movement form in the Rhenish and unifyies a
four-movement work with one motto in the D minor symphony.
Schumannís symphonies have been too readily dismissed as failures
in need of orchestral retouching to dilute their supposed Teutonic
denseness. Fortunately we have reassessed them, particularly
in the light of research into original instruments and performance
practice. Schumann himself reworked the Fourth - to no great
advantage it must be said - supposedly redistributing the music
with doubling between instrumental families. This was with a
view to lessening the likelihood of a collapse in performance
(a safety in numbers philosophy) due to his indifferent conducting
The RPO has no fewer than seven ranks of conductors on the orchestraís
roster. Nowak is their Principal Associate Conductor. Together
they have produced, in this bicentennial year of Schumannís
birth, a double set covering the four symphonies. The recordings
were made one and two years earlier.
The First begins with a robust reading of the first movement.
Judiciously played solos in the winds - flute in particular
- emphasise the pastoral nature of the music. A tenderly phrased
Larghetto, Schumannís slow movements are Intermezzi,
is followed by a detailed account of the scherzo. This is a
typically syncopated Schumann model with its two Trios. The
second of these is taken at a mighty faster tempo, where no
change is indicated. The finale is beautifully played by the
RPO strings, every delicate nuance detectable in the quaver
passage-work. A lovely flute cadenza and an excitingly-paced
accelerando bring it all to a thrilling conclusion.
The introduction to the Second must have pleased its first conductor
Mendelssohn with its Bach-style contrapuntal build-up. Again
the music is nicely paced as it builds seamlessly to the Allegro.
Nowak keeps the development from wandering too far from the
main path. It is dangerously repetitive music which can fail
to keep an audience involved as it meanders through the keys
until it finds itself back in C major for the recapitulation.
Another wearing aspect on the ear is the pretty well continuous
string Ďscrubbingí, tiring to play and eventually tiring to
listen to, as non-lovers of Brucknerís symphonies will also
testify. The scherzo is the nearest Schumann gets to Mendelssohnian
lightness of touch. It is a brilliant movement. Itís one I remember
Boulez conducting at a rehearsal with infinite care, every semiquaver
in place. Nowak again takes liberties with tempi, the Coda taken
at a breakneck faster speed where none is indicated. On a knife-edge
it may be, but ensemble is immaculate and the final chords are
crisply punctuated to thrill. The slow movement is expressively
warm, in which the woodwinds shine. Passion builds in the strings
before it all subsides to a fugato. Itís the finale which palls
here despite more tampering with tempi, this time slowing on
a couple of occasions to set up another section of this long
movement. Itís as if Nowak doesnít trust Schumann. Well, one
could say, judging by those who have tampered with the symphonies
by this troubled man in the past, that Nowak is in good company.
The Rhenish is the last (1850) of Schumannís symphonies.
It was the one symphony which, from the final years of the 19th
century and even after, was the prime target of retouching by
conductors such as Mahler and Weingartner. There is, like the
Spring, a loose programme, but itís absolutely non-essential
to its understanding. The Symphony gets a broad reading, with
the horn section of the RPO in excellent form, especially those
cruelly high Es for the first horn in the Trio. Again Nowak
interferes with tempi, the result of which is to show the cracks
in the wallpaper; in other words highlighting the joints in
the musical structure. One that jars in particular is in the
finale of the Fourth Symphony at the double bar where four bars
introduce the development section, and again at the start of
the coda. Having grown up on Cantelliís untouchable 1953 recording
- breathlessly full of fiery energy - this reading is fairly
hum-drum, although the final Presto after the Schneller
(Quicker) generates some excitement. On the other hand,
individual playing is very fine: cello, oboe and violin in the
second movement Romanze. Nowak coaxes some impressively
quiet playing at pianissimo moments here and in the other
symphonies. Laudably he also observes all the repeats in all
four symphonies. If only he had gone all the way and trusted
the composer more. After more than 150 years since Schumannís
death, it is apparently still not a matter of course.