Robert SCHUMANN (1810 - 1856)
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
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 part.
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 and earthbound.
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.
Michael Greenhalgh
Creates distinctive interpretations but with mixed success.