The still-missed Deryck Cooke, reviewing in “Gramophone”
the first release of Furtwängler’s Schumann 1, felt
that the conductor’s breadth and seriousness was preferable
to “those spick and span Mendelssohnian performances that
wouldn’t really suit Mendelssohn either” (I quote
from memory). Here, if you want it, is the sort of spick and
span Mendelssohnian Schumann 1 that wouldn’t really suit
Mendelssohn either. Tempi are brisk, textures are lean and transparent
- forget the idea that Schumann couldn’t orchestrate.
Since this is post-HIP - i.e. a smallish modern symphony orchestra
made to play rather as if on period instruments and with an
avoidance of the luxuriant long line - accents are jabbed at,
the brass occasionally rasp and the timpani rattle drily.
Yet there’s nothing so very new under the sun. Go back
to the 1946 Cleveland recording under Erich Leinsdorf, a conductor
whose interpretations, once maligned, are now re-emerging as
interesting example of a pre-HIP approach, and you find the
same lean textures. In the slow movement, in particular, they
have practically identical timings and “sforzati”
are treated in the same way, uncomprehendingly jabbed at just
because they’re there without any sense of where they
belong in the long line. It’s the over-swift tempo that
brings them too close to each other, instead of allowing them
to inflect and enliven the melodic phrases.
On the other hand, Järvi’s brutal treatment of the
quasi-fanfare shapes in the third movement is not anticipated
by Leinsdorf, who does at least fire up the orchestra to an
animal excitement in the outer movements. These chortle along
nicely under Järvi so you’d think that all they need
is some jolly words to make them sound like Gilbert and Sullivan.
A shortcoming in the Leinsdorf camp, though, is his attempt
to impose a Stokowski/Hollywood sheen on the string melodies
of the slow movement. All things considered, neither the pre-
nor the post-HIP approach got as much out of this symphony as
a good “traditional” performance.
The “Rhenish” was a teenage infatuation of mine.
I can’t think how many times I listened to it, in René
Leibowitz’s resplendent performance - latterly on Chesky
- rejoicing in its sheer exuberance, the sunlight glinting on
the golden waters of the Rhine. Clearly, in a post-HIP world
this won’t do, so how to put a wet blanket on it? Järvi
has two basic techniques in the first movement. One is to slacken
every time a lyrical theme comes up, with a stop-go-stop-go
effect that becomes enervating. The other is to emphasize accents
on the syncopated off-beats by ever-so-slightly delaying them,
with the result that the music’s natural swing is replaced
by pedantic over-emphasis. If a more dreadful account of this
glorious movement exists, I hope I shall never hear it.
The next two movements are less objectionable, though Järvi
again separates off the episodes in the Ländler rather
than letting them grow naturally out of the preceding material.
The third movement gives him nothing much to over-emphasize,
but passes rather blandly. The fourth movement is actually built
up rather impressively while the last resorts again to Gilbert
and Sullivan-style jolliness.
I didn’t get out my cherished Leibowitz for comparisons
but took the opportunity to hear three accounts from the 1950s
that, in their general swiftness, might suggest a pre-HIP approach.
Two used the Vienna State Opera Orchestra and can be found as
downloads on the internet.
Hans Swarowsky, at 27:19, may provide the swiftest overall account
ever. At its best his first movement - 7.49 compared with Järvi’s
9.12 - has an ideal swing. Unfortunately Swarowsky does not
really shape the contrasting episodes, he just beats on at his
fast tempo and lets the orchestra fit in the notes as best they
can. His second and third movements show you can be both perfunctory
and fast - 04:59 and 04:43 compared with Järvi’s
05:38 and 04:52. The music is hardly shaped at all. His fourth
movement, though, is an interesting alternative to most others.
At 04:22 - Järvi takes 05:36 - he builds it up urgently
rather than majestically. His finale is relatively broad and
virtually identical in timing to Järvi’s - 05:24
as against 05:25. He lets the music run, whereas Järvi
has some irritating point-making. He is perfunctory in a traditional
way, while Järvi is perfunctory in a more interventionist
More interesting is Dean Dixon. He draws a fuller sound from
the orchestra and the extra space in his still-fastish first
movement - 8:50 - allows a combination of urgency and majesty.
Like Järvi, he sometimes emphasizes the syncopated off-beats,
and as a result comes close to tub-thumping here and there.
His Ländler - 5:50 - is a fine piece of conducting, with
the right swing and with each episode emerging naturally from
the previous one. His third movement has an identical timing
to Järvi’s, but is more natural in its phrasing.
His fourth movement builds up steadily and majestically, very
slightly faster than Järvi’s at 5:30. Allegedly Dixon
was ordered by Nixa to fit the symphony on one LP side - unusual
in those days. This might explain the almost rabid urgency of
his finale, timed at 4:50. It is exciting but a little uncomfortable.
My third comparison has Boult conducting a rather scrappy London
Philharmonic. His first movement has aroused amazement and enthusiasm
over the years but not, reading between the lines, universal
satisfaction. At 7:31 it may be the fastest ever. The gut conviction
of the playing, however untidy, and the control over the long
line make it obvious that Boult was a great conductor in a way
the other three are not. All the same, it is difficult not to
feel that Boult is applying his considerable gifts to justify
a tempo that is inherently too fast. Whatever he intended, the
result is more bullish than ebullient. I’ve returned to
this several times over the years and still remain unconvinced.
Boult’s middle movements are free-flowing without excessive
haste - the timings are 5:58, 5:17 and 5:27 - while his finale,
almost as fast as Dixon’s - 4:57 - manages to sound jubilant
rather than rabid. Given that first movement, though, out of
these performances I’d have to choose Dixon’s.
What Järvi shows, I think, is that post-HIP has come of
age. Time was when the newness of such an approach gave it an
exploratory feel, whether you liked it or not. The lesson here
is that post-HIP performances can be as flaccidly routine in
our own day as a Swarowsky could be in his.
I suppose I’d better add that this disc, like many today,
comes with an “agenda” - in this case the “Schumann
project”. Underlying this is the “discovery”
by Prof. Dr. Med. Uwe Henrik Peters, Emeritus Director of the
Clinic of Neurology, Psychiatry and Psychotherapy of the University
of Cologne, that Schumann’s doctors had got it all wrong.
We have been led to believe all these years that the composer
fell prey to insanity and had to be committed to a mental asylum.
According to Prof. Dr. Med. Peters, the doctors of the day were
incapable of telling the difference between a madman and a perfectly
sane person with a tendency to drink himself under the table
for long periods. Furthermore, his loving wife Clara and his
admiring fellow composer Brahms were only too happy - for the
purposes of unexplained financial gain - to have him consigned
to what was known, in those politically incorrect days, as “the
bin”. This “startling interpretation” should
apparently induce “a completely fresh approach to the
works of Robert Schumann”. Perhaps this is the reason
for these performances’ rejection of the inspirational
flights once believed inherent to this composer’s work.
If you are uneasy with the idea that Schumann is a great composer,
here’s a chance to discover his mediocrity. Poor Schumann
... poor us...
Masterwork Index: Schumann