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CD: AmazonUK AmazonUS
Download: Classicsonline

Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
CD 1 [68.50]
Symphony No. 1 in B flat op. 38 Spring (1841) [31.00]
Symphony No. 2 in C op. 61 (1847) [37.40]
CD 2 [64.30]
Symphony No. 3 in E flat op. 97 Rhenish (1851) [33.34]
Symphony No. 4 in D minor op. 120 (1851) [30.43]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Grzegorz Nowak
rec. Cadogan Hall, London, February 2008, January 2009


Experience Classicsonline

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 technique.

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.

Christopher Fifield



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