Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony no.1 in B flat op. 38 - “Spring” [31:20]
Symphony no.3 in E flat op.97 - “Rhenish” [30:23]
Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen/Paavo Järvi
rec. venue and recording dates not provided
SONY RCA RED SEAL 88697 96431 2 [62:31]
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 way.
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...
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 symphonies