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Symphony No. 1 in B flat major, op. 38, Spring (1841) [33:07]
Symphony No. 2 in C major, op. 61 (1846) [38:46]
London Symphony Orchestra/Yondani Butt
rec. Abbey Road Studios, London, 28-29 October 2011, DDD
NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI 6181 [71:56]
Yondani Butt creates distinctive interpretations of the first
two Schumann symphonies. However, they represent a mixed success.
I like his distinctiveness in the second but am less convinced
by that of the first.
The first movement of Symphony 1 (tr. 1) is dominated
by the opening phrase for horns and trumpets. This is marked
Andante un poco maestoso but unease about the un
poco makes it sound to me a touch stiff and hesitant. This
is a quality that carries through to the gradual accelerando
from 1:56 and even the main body of the movement, the Allegro
from 2:31 which isn’t convincingly molto vivace. Butt
neatly articulates that first phrase in all its later manifestations
but this clarity of musical argument is achieved at the expense
of exuberance. Admittedly there’s some compensation in the pleasingly
calm treatment of the second theme from 3:14 and the detail
of the exchange between first and second violins in its second
I compared the classic 1972 recording by the Staatskapelle Dresden/Wolfgang
Sawallisch. (EMI 5 67768 2). This has altogether more energy,
drama and irresistible momentum, just what you might expect
from a depiction of Spring bursting forth after Winter. Sawallisch
also makes the exposition repeat as desired by Schumann. In
not doing so Butt disturbs the balance of the movement, especially
as Schumann’s development is longer than the norm. Though Butt’s
timing for the movement is 11:27 against Sawallisch’s 11:31,
if you take into consideration this lack of repeat Butt’s true
comparative timing would be 13:07. This ample measure does,
however, score some advantages over Sawallisch. It adds a sense
of rigour to the development (4:11) and greater clarity to the
third theme (4:28) as it appears on oboe above the repeat of
the opening phrase. Butt also offers a light, less scrambled,
articulation of the flute solo at 4:59, a festive delivery of
the bass trombone solo at 6:29 and, most telling of all, affectionate
treatment of that lovely phase of reflection from 9:29 in the
coda. Then again the violins’ and violas’ ascent at 7:14 during
the return of the introduction material is just too calculated
To the start of the slow movement (tr. 2) Butt brings a pleasingly
veiled quality but the loud tutti chords from 1:28
are for me a touch too weighty. The result is not as sensitive
as the preceding fps at 015, nor the working up to
forte earlier at 0:51. It’s a fine distinction but
Sawallisch gauges the effect better, largely because he reveals
the detail of the orchestral accompaniment in a more transparent
manner. That said, Butt shows more warmth, the cellos’ taking
over the opening melody and its later appearance on oboe and
horn both beautifully glowing.
In Butt’s Scherzo his firm and gruff accents are fitting and
set up a pleasing contrast in its clarinet-headed second section.
His first Trio is light, with more emphasis on style than suggested
by the marking Molto piu vivace just as he has stressed
substance far more than pace for the Scherzo’s Molto vivace.
Butt does make the second Trio which strictly is at the Scherzo
marking more vivace and feathery. Sawallisch is both
more sumptuous in this movement yet has more biting timpani.
His Trio 1 in particular has more momentum.
The finale (tr. 4) is marked Allegro animato e grazioso.
Butt emphasises its graciousness, Sawallisch its animation.
Here I prefer Butt because he allows relaxation within the overall
celebration whereas Sawallisch stresses virtuosity and the tension
of driving forward. Comparative timings of Butt 8:00, Sawallisch
8:15, don’t reveal the actual difference in tempo because Butt
omits the exposition repeat, which had he included it would
have brought his timing to 10:00. Butt brings a wispy delicacy
to the first theme while the second (0:59) is by turns impish
and mock stern, typical of the movement’s chameleon changes
of mood. His development is full of eager anticipation but you
always feel there’s reserve energy available.
Symphony 2 is usually presented as a journey from darkness
to light, as in Sawallisch’s introduction with solemn brass
motto theme and anxious violins accompanying. Butt doesn’t buy
this and goes rather for serene brass and violins gently rolling
around. It means he has to be a bit smoother than Schumann’s
‘Very sustained’ yet I like this approach. You have less time
to note the brief, contrasting woodwind phrase (tr. 5 1:12)
but that’s the foundation of considerable expansion from 5:24
in the development. You’ll enjoy Butt’s cool musing more than
Sawallisch’s troubled insistency. Butt is less happy in the
second, livelier phase of the introduction and its train of
sforzandi, yet this is an awkward passage anyway. Schumann’s
first, rather fidgety, theme of his main Allegro (3:32)
is lightly sprung by Butt and the more expansive athleticism
of the second theme (3:54) is enjoyable, capped by strings’
sheeny ascents and tremolando. As in Symphony 1 Butt
omits the exposition repeat yet he brings a sense of rigorous
progression to the development and flow to the movement’s peroration.
The passage from 10:04, marked ‘With fire’ comes rather lightly
prancing where Sawallisch brings more impetuosity and generally
verve and excitement to the close of the movement.
In the Scherzo (tr. 6) Butt finds an animated lightness of understatement
where Sawallisch parades more hectic virtuosity. You can hear
this when the first violins interrupt the flutes’ descent with
a syncopated rhythm. Butt at 0:58 effects this without Sawallisch’s
aggression. The trios offer relief: a succession of crotchets
to savour after the preponderance of semiquavers in Trio 1,
an even dreamier Trio 2 but then a more animated coda whose
chief function is to allow the first movement motto theme to
return. Butt takes this all in his stride. Everything is clear
while he finds more tranquillity in the trios if less mania
in the coda than Sawallisch.
Butt gives the elegiac slow movement (tr. 7) more measure than
Sawallisch, taking 11:09 in comparison with 10:18, and in so
doing creates a meditation on the most passionate feelings in
which time stands still. From the outset there are descents
of pathos, first by violins, then oboe and before long comes
the dignity of the violins in rich, low register. For a kind
of abstract relief there’s a fugue (5:21) which is barely developed.
Throughout this movement Butt is less stylish than Sawallisch
and also more contained. You can hear this in particular in
the climactic high string passages, with less full tone and
dynamic range, yet this less cultivated manner is more moving.
The finale (tr. 8) is very curious. It’s not the cheery bluster
of the first theme that’s important, still less the following
skittering first violins. The latter is a flimsy covering for
the use of a fast version of snatches of the slow movement theme
from 0:49. No, what’s important here is the melody heard on
the oboe at 3:46. This is developed into a suitably stately,
triumphant close that can also accommodate many returns, again
in snatches but gradually more emphatically, of the first movement
motto. Butt delivers this in turn in trim and sunny style albeit
without the potent drive and blazing sonority of Sawallisch.
Yet at the end I’m left thinking, isn’t Butt’s focus worthily
on the key features of the musical argument rather than dramatic
projection? Well, perhaps sometimes it is.