Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No. 1 in B flat major, Op. 38 Spring (1841) [31:07]
Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op. 61 (1845/46) [38:04]
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 97 Rhenish (1850) [30:38]
Symphony No. 4 in D minor (first version, 1841) [24:57]
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, 14/16 February 2013 (3), 20/22 February 2013 (2), 31 October/2 November 2013 (1, 4), Berlin Philharmonie, Germany. Recording details given below
BERLINER PHILHARMONIKER RECORDINGS BPHR140011 Blu-ray video & audio/CD [56:18 + 68:56]

With this release the Berliner Philharmoniker has become the latest orchestra to launch its own record label, though the orchestra has been streaming its concerts for some time through the Digital Concert Hall. In fact, I believe that the orchestra dipped its toe in the water some years ago with a short-lived own label. That venture didn’t continue but Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings is now launched with a strong statement of intent. If this were a motor car we’d be equating it with a top-of-the-range Mercedes for this lavish release. It offers purchasers a pair of CDs and a Blu-Ray disc that contains films of Sir Simon and the orchestra playing all four symphonies in concert and also a BD-A layer so that one can listen to a top-quality audio production. The linen-covered book in which the discs and documentation are housed, though not perhaps ideally practical for one’s shelves, proclaims that this is a luxury product. The documentation is also thorough, including comprehensive notes and such information as the scoring of each symphony and the details of the first performances and the first performances by the Berliner Philharmoniker.

I believe that the audio version here presented – in both formats – is essentially the four live performances. However, I’m sure a modest amount of patching has been done in order to present the most perfect CD/BD-A experience. That much is obvious from the fact that in the short ‘Behind the Scenes’ film we see the orchestra recording in rehearsal and I noted that in the Second Symphony there’s a minuscule blemish towards the end of the slow movement when the woodwind’s penultimate chord is marginally imprecise: on the audio recording the chord is absolutely unanimous. Such editing, which I’m sure has been fairly minimal, matters not: in whatever format you experience these Schumann performances you’re in for a treat.

As I recall, during his long tenure at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Rattle tended not to play the standard Austro-German repertoire quite as much as he did the music of the late-nineteenth century and beyond. He’s more than made amends since then, starting with his Beethoven symphony cycle (with the VPO), which I liked, as did Marc Bridle (review), though it wasn’t as highly regarded by everyone. That set was made before he took over the Berlin podium, I think. More relevant to this present issue, perhaps, because they have been made in Berlin, are his very enjoyable set of symphonies by Haydn - a composer who Rattle has long loved (review) - and his fine Brahms symphony cycle (review). Like this new Schumann set, those Haydn and Brahms performances stemmed from concert performances.

Before considering these Schumann performances it’s appropriate to comment on the recorded sound because in the past Rattle’s recordings in the Philharmonie have attracted criticism in some quarters in respect of the engineering. I have to say that I’ve generally found the recordings that I’ve heard are satisfactory. However, most of them have been made for EMI and I think there has been improvement over the years. It may be that in the early days the EMI engineers found the Philharmonie a challenging venue. It may be significant that eventually EMI started to use a German producer, Christophe Franke, and a German engineer, René Möller. I don’t know for how many Rattle recordings they have been responsible – they didn’t make the 2007 Haydn recordings but they were on board the following year for the Brahms symphonies – but they’re responsible for these Schumann recordings and they’ve produced excellent results. The sound on the Blu-Ray is very good – as is the camerawork – but you’ll get the best sound through either the CDs or the BD-A. The CDs give very good results indeed. The sound is clear, expertly balanced and shows off the magnificent orchestra – and Schumann’s orchestral writing – very well indeed. The BD-A adds another dimension, however. The impressive CD sound has even more depth and presence in the BD-A version. Two examples will suffice. In the introduction to the first movement of the Second Symphony BD-A listeners will find that there’s extra depth to the sound of the orchestra as compared with the CD and that Schumann’s individual lines can all be heard with maximum clarity while merging into a very impressive whole. Move on to the first movement of the ‘Rhenish’ and what’s already an excellent sound on CD has both additional impact and warmth when heard in its BD-A incarnation. In summary, in al three versions these recordings are presented in the best sound that I’ve yet encountered from Rattle and the BPO in any format.

In the filmed interview that is one of the bonus features Rattle, who describes Schumann as ‘The “Echt” Romantic’, relates his journey towards conducting Schumann. It began with hearing Kubelik’s BPO recordings when he was a teenager. Then in his twenties he was encouraged further through meeting Heinz Holliger, who he describes as ‘a Schumann nut’. Carlo Maria Giulini advised him to investigate Das Paradies und die Peri which he admits it took him some thirty years to do. But finally, in his fifties, he is conducting the symphonies, an experience he describes as ‘like Christmas every day’. When you watch the filmed performances you can see this: there’s the trademark Rattle enthusiasm for and commitment to whatever he conducts as well as his famed attention to detail and, to be honest, those qualities come across if you only hear the performances, without seeing him in action.

The First and Fourth symphonies were paired in concert, which makes great sense since they were composed with a matter of months of each other – Rattle opts to conduct the original 1841 version of the Fourth rather than its more familiar revised version of 1851. He gets plaudits from me straightaway by dividing his violins, left and right – as he does throughout this cycle. The violas sit where the second violins would normally sit and the cellos are to their left. If I’ve counted accurately there are six desks of first violins, five desks of seconds, four desks of violas, three of celli and five double basses. For the Second and Third symphonies an extra desk is added to each violin section, I think.

The First Symphony comes off very well indeed. After Rattle has built the tension well during the first movement introduction, the Allegro molto vivace bursts out like a thoroughbred. Though the orchestral sound is rich it’s also lithe: there’s no unwelcome trace of corpulence here. It’s evident from his facial expressions that Rattle is taking genuine pleasure both in the music and in the performance he’s leading. A very persuasive, lyrical performance of the second movement is followed by a reading of the scherzo in which the rhythms are strongly defined. The finale is light-footed and very enjoyable. The players, too, seem to be relishing the experience: at one point you see the second bassoonist grinning when his colleague pays a delicious little solo. This is a winning performance of Schumann’s First symphony.

Rattle says of the Fourth that he would never wish to play the revised version on account of its heavier scoring and general demeanour. He points out that Schumann, a manic-depressive, wrote the symphony during one of his manic phases but revised it when in the grip of a depression. Rattle shapes the introduction to the first movement very well and the main Allegro di molto surges with purpose and great energy. The Romanza is beautifully sculpted and I particularly liked the episode in which the solo violinist – the excellent Daniel Stabrawa – take the lead; there is great delicacy in the playing. There’s what I might call cultivated vigour in the scherzo while the trios are delivered with finesse. Rattle and his players ensure that the transition to the finale has significant tension and then treat us to an invigorating account of the movement itself.

The Second Symphony is the one over which in many ways the shadow of Beethoven hovers yet the influence of Mendelssohn is often felt too. That latter influence is especially apparent in the scherzo and again in the finale. The passages of Mendelssohnian lightness in the scherzo are very well done, the playing needle sharp, while the trio sections are delicate and precise. The core of the symphony is the Adagio espressivo and this performance is memorable. The Berlin winds and horns offer marvellously expressive playing while their string colleagues invest their music with rich sostenuto tone. The performance, which opened with a strong, lively account of the first movement ends with an exhilarating traversal of the finale.

Excellent though the other performances are, however, the reading of the Rhenish strikes me as the outstanding one here. There’s an open-air exuberance in the first movement that’s irresistible. The main theme is, in Michael Steinberg’s memorable description, ‘a puissantly forward-thrusting idea’ and in this performance that description is justified in spades. In particular the horn section covers itself in collective glory, making me wish that the Konzertstück for four horns, Op. 86 had been included also. There’s a beautifully detailed reading of the Scherzo which really seems to convey a picture of the Rhine in full flow. The central movement is lovingly shaped, the playing genuinely refined: you know that there’s a sophisticated orchestra and a sophisticated conductor at work here. The dark, solemn fourth movement is invested with great tension: I’m persuaded by Rattle’s suggestion that there is more here than an aural impression of Cologne Cathedral. The finale is full of vitality and well-focussed energy and, as in the first movement, the horns ring out splendidly whenever Schumann lets them off the leash.

I enjoyed these performances greatly. Rattle displays a fine affinity with these scores and though the orchestra members must have played these symphonies many times there’s never the slightest suspicion of routine here: everything sounds fresh and newly discovered – though I hasten to add that there’s never a suspicion of disruptive point-making. In the Behind the Scenes feature one of the orchestra’s first konzertmeisters, Daniel Stabrawa, describes Rattle as one of the few conductors who know what Schumann really means and you sense that the orchestra has relished discovering these scores in performance with him.

This lavish production launches the orchestra’s own label in splendid style and I’m thrilled that I’ve had the chance to experience these fine performances. Future releases include a Schubert symphony cycle with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Rattle conducting Peter Sellars’ staging of Bach’s St. John Passion. Those releases are awaited with great interest but for now this Schumann cycle offers rewarding and stimulating listening.

John Quinn

Previous review: Michael Cookson (May 2014 Recording of the Month)

Masterwork Index: Schumann symphonies

Recording details

Pure Audio Blu-ray disc:
a) Audio
(yellow) 2.0 PCM Stereo 24-bit / 96 kHz
(red) 5.0 Surround Sound DTS-HD Master Audio 24-bit / 96 kHz
Running time 125 mins
b) Video
Bonus material:
Sir Simon Rattle in conversation
Behind the scenes of the recording
About the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall
Video Director: Robert Gummlitch (Syms 1, 4), Daniel Finkernagal/Alexander Luck (Sym 2), Michael Beyer (Sym 3).
Picture: Full HD 1080/60i - 16.9
Sound: 2.0 PCM Stereo
5.0 Surround Sound DTS-HD Master Audio 16-bit / 48 kHz
Region Code: ABC (worldwide);
Bonus film languages: English, German
Running time concerts: 140 mins, bonus: 35 mins