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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No. 1 in B flat major, Op.38 Spring (1841) [30:17]
Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op.61 (1845-6) [34:56]
Fuge überden Namen BACH, Op.60 No.6 (1845) [7:23]
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op.97 Rhenish (1850) [31:26]
Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op.120 (1841) [23:09]
Symphony in G minor, WoO 29 Zwickau (1829, incomplete) [17:32]
Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic/Michael Schønwandt
rec. 16-20 April 2012 (1, 4), 5-9 June 2012 (2, 3); 20-23 August 2012 (Zwickau, Fuge), Studio 1, Muziekcentrum van de Omroep, Hilversum (NL)
CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72553 [73:30 + 72:25] 

Having been brought up with the Klemperer version of Schumann’s four symphonies, I later discovered those by Sawallisch and Kubelik. These seemed to satisfy my needs until last year when I acquired the John Eliot Gardner cycle which opened up a completely new and exciting sound-world. Needless to say this has been the version that I have since been living with and it has replaced all the others. This new version from the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic under the direction of Michael Schønwandt is very much in a similar vein.
These performances definitely make you sit up and take notice. When I started to listen to the opening track of CD 1 and the first movement of the Spring, I was immediately struck by a brisk, energetic approach to the Allegro molto vivace, which follows the introduction. There is so much light and air. The string tone is luscious and warm and the beautiful woodwind passages emerge with crystalline clarity. Many in the past have complained that Schumann scored these works too heavily. Schønwandt is able to achieve a transparency and lightness, bringing out all the colours of the orchestra.
I particularly enjoyed the adagio third movement of the Second Symphony. This can, in some performances, degenerate into sickly, over-sentimentality. Here it is contained and reined-in. Again the beautiful woodwind passages are exemplary. Similarly. the opening movement of the Rhenish is not too heavy or grandiose. By comparison Klemperer is almost Brucknerian. Schønwandt employs brisker tempi, and in the second movement you feel carried along, transported on air, such is the grace and warmth of what we hear. Rhythmic incisiveness characterizes the last two movements of the Fourth Symphony.
These performances are a pleasure to listen to. Everything seems just right - tempi, phrasing and dynamics. Gripping, thrilling and invigorating are adjectives which come to mind. It is good to have the early ‘incomplete’ G minor symphony, which is not always included in all sets. Likewise the Fuge überden Namen BACH, Op.60 No.6, a work completely new to me, is a welcome addition, though I would have preferred the Manfred Overture. The Muziekcentrum van de Omroep, Hilversum (NL), Studio 1 provides an ideal acoustic.
If you have had any doubts about Schumann’s symphonies, give these a try. You certainly won’t be disappointed.
Stephen Greenbank
Masterwork Index: Schumann symphonies