The inaugural release of the Berliner Philharmoniker’s own record label Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings comprises of Robert Schumann’s four symphonies. It is only natural for the Berliner Philharmoniker to make this important step of creating its own label which allows total control of recorded repertoire. Other releases planned this year include J.S. Bach’s St John Passion conducted by Sir Simon Rattle and staged by director Peter Sellars and also a complete cycle of Franz Schubert’s symphonies conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.
Already in existence is the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall (a video streaming platform delivering webcasts of concerts both live and from its archive, interviews and education programmes to SmartTVs, Blu-ray disc players and mobile devices: Tablet, Smartphone or PC). For the last 12 months I have been watching the impressively produced live and recorded concerts streamed from the Digital Concert Hall on my HD TV thanks to a preinstalled app on my Sony Blu-ray disc player. The clear benefits of having technological leadership in this innovative area will surely assist the global reach of the Berliner Philharmoniker and increase its already elevated international reputation. A number of music directors I have met would like to go down the Digital Concert Hall route in principal but fear the necessary start up expenditure.
Surprisingly neglected in relation to their quality the symphonies of Robert Schumann run through the Berliner Philharmoniker’s veins like lifeblood and form part of its core repertoire. In fact the orchestra’s first subscription concert in 1882 concluded with a performance of Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 under Franz Wüllner thus beginning a 132 year association with Schumann’s symphonies. An ardent admirer of Schumann’s music, Rattle describes him as the ‘echt’ Romantic. In the interview in the accompanying Blu-ray disc it is clear to see Rattle’s delight at conducting these symphonies saying “It’s like Christmas all year round with these pieces.” For these Rattle uses the standard orchestration of pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, 4/2 French horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones and timpani with forty or so strings.
The Symphony No. 1 in B flat major, Op. 38 ‘Spring’ from 1841 is the product of a joyous burst of activity from the recently married thirty year old composer. According to Clara Schuman’s diary the title of ‘Spring’ Symphony was given owing to the impact of the verse of Leipzig Adolf Böttger Im Tale zieht der frühling auf (In the valley, spring approaches). Schumann discarded his poetic original titles for each movement: ‘The Beginning of Spring’, ‘Evening’, ‘Merry Playmates’ and ‘Spring in Full Bloom’. Felix Mendelssohn, Schumann’s mentor, conducted the premiere of the score in 1841 at the Gewandhaus Leipzig. The Berliner Philharmoniker first played the work soon after its formation in 1883 with Joseph Joachim conducting at a time when the orchestra may well have been using its interim name Frühere Bilsesche Kapelle (Former Bilse’s Band). In the opening movement the performance of joy and optimism from Rattle’s Berliner Philharmoniker feels completely natural, flowing effortlessly forward with ideal pacing. I was impressed with the sensitivity of the Larghetto where Rattle brings out the romantic character and soul of the music. In the Scherzo Rattle selects an ideal tempi allowing the music time to breathe and at point 3:29 he speeds up so fluently. In the final movement Allegro animato e grazioso ‘Spring’s farewell’ Rattle brings out a joyous dance-like quality. My attention was drawn to the uplifting horn solo at 4:56 and the Pan-like flute solo from 5:08 that serve as examples of the impressive individual detail.
Schumann composed his Symphony No. 4 in D minor in 1841 at Leipzig and it was introduced the same year by the Gewandhaus Leipzig conducted by Ferdinand David. Only married the previous year, Clara Schumann wrote in her diary “It is a work created out of the deepest soul.” Schumann became unsatisfied with the piece and put it aside. Desiring a fuller, richer sound in 1851 Schumann gave the score substantial revision and it is this revised version that was subsequently published as Op. 120 and is more usually performed. Schumann himself conducted the first performance of the 1851 version at Dusseldorf. The first time the Berliner Philharmoniker performed the work was in 1883 using the 1851 revision under Joseph Joachim. Brahms believed in the superiority of the original score and we have him to thank for rescuing the score which he did at the expense of his friendship with Clara Schumann. It seems it was only in 1988 that the Berliner Philharmoniker first played the 1841 version under the baton of Jesús López-Cobos. Rattle chose the Fourth Symphony for his first Schumann symphony in Berlin in 2006 using the original 1841 version that he has chosen to record here. Rattle views there are places in the revised version where the orchestration can be understandably criticised. “I would look at his revised version but I would never want to play it again. Because somehow it is for me a desperately unsettling mirror into his psyche.”
With bold and compelling playing Rattle communicates an eerily mysterious and melodically memorable opening movement. In the Romanze, Schumann’s shortest movement in a symphony, Rattle allows plenty of space around Schumann’s lyrical themes and provides a feeling of special intimacy. Making a divine impression is the subtlety played featherlight violin solo. With bold confidence Rattle and his Berlin players lovingly mould the Scherzo adding vivid colouration to the writing. In the final movement Rattle’s gripping reading conveys spirit with ideal forward momentum and weight. Hearing a performance as excellent as this it is difficult to comprehend why Schumann needed to revised the score so considerably.
Written in 1845/46 the Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op. 61 is, according to Rattle, probably the most symphonic sounding of the set, a work that comes from a desperate depressive period in the composer’s life. Schumann said “Only in the last movement that I start to feel myself again; but it was only after I’d finished the whole work that I really felt any better. Otherwise it reminds me of a dark period in my life.” He also explained, “It is music of light and shade, sunshine and shadow.” It was Felix Mendelssohn who gave the first performance of the score in 1846 at the Gewandhaus Leipzig. In the opening movement the Berliner Philharmoniker provides a vital sense of engagement and significant vitality. Highly rhythmic the Scherzo, so Mendelssohnian in spirit, is given highly focused playing with the development towards the climax of the movement sounding especially impressive. Rattle in the lyrical Adagio communicates a heart-felt interpretation providing a natural and unforced ebb and flow to the music. Dramatically engaging in the closing movement the Berlin orchestra plays with freshness and exuberance as if acknowledging the composer’s optimistic state of mind.
From 1850 the last of the four to be written was the Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 97 ‘Rhenish’. Schumann wrote of the five movement symphony that “it appeals to far more friendlier moods than the symphony in C major.” Privately Schumann spoke of an inner programme to the music concerning aspects of Rhineland life such as festivals, river cruises and cathedrals. It is often cited that for the fourth movement Schumann was inspired by the magnificent sight of the recently competed Cologne Cathedral and in particular the Roman Catholic elevation ceremony of the Archbishop of Cologne to the rank of Cardinal. Rattle talks about how in the fourth movement he “sees before his mind’s eye not Cologne Cathedral but a glimpse into the unfathomable depths of a soul and into the heart of man planning to put a violent end to his life by throwing himself in the Rhine…” Schumann gave the score’s premiere the following year in Dusseldorf. The first time the Berliner Philharmoniker performed the work was in 1884 under Franz Wüllner. There is a granite-like solidity to the playing of the Berliner Philharmoniker in the opening movement containing a formidable sense of towering grandeur that certainly could depict Cologne Cathedral. Endearing and melodic in the Scherzo Rattle directs a flowing pace that evokes a picture of the River Rhine. I love Rattle’s calm and gentle interpretation of the third movement Intermezzo that contains distinctly nocturnal feel. This is such gracious playing of the highest quality from the Berlin players that just glows with affection. With Rattle’s intense and solemn interpretation of the fourth movement it feels like a long dark shadow has been drawn over the writing. Communicating an uplifting sense of positivity there is a fresh, open-air character to the final movement. The performance contains astutely judged weight, pace and precision that Rattle expertly blends together with sure control.
The Schumann symphonies have proved enduringly popular with conductors in the recording studio. Over the years the Berliner Philharmoniker has made a number of recordings of the complete Schumann symphonies with all of them sounding as if larger string sections are employed compared to Rattle’s complement of forty. The three excellent sets I have, all on Deutsche Grammophon and recorded at the Jesus-Christus-Kirche Berlin/Dahlem have served me well over the years. There are the 1963/1964 accounts from conductor Rafael Kubelik, Herbert von Karajan in 1971 and James Levine from 1987 and 1990. With such fresh and invigorating performances this new set conducted by Rattle breathes new life into these Schumann symphonies and is certainly the one to own.
Marking the launch of the Berliner Philharmoniker’s own label is this deluxe presentation of the complete Schumann recordings; a linen bound hardcover edition made available in various formats. It includes the usual audio format on two CDs and a Blu-ray Disc in audiophile studio quality of 96kHz/24bit or as HD video. For those wanting an even higher resolution an accompanying code is provided to enable download of studio master audio files up to 192kHz/24bit. In addition a code is provided to allow 48 hours access to the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall. The booklet notes provide most of the essential information with pages attractively and artistically laid out with images of porcelain from sponsor Königliche Porzellan-Manufaktur (Royal Porcelain Factory) in Berlin. There is also some bonus material namely behind-the-scenes videos including Sir Simon Rattle in conversation about the Schumann symphonies and a comprehensive booklet with articles about Robert Schumann, his symphonies and the Schumann tradition of the Berliner Philharmoniker. Catering for a wide range of tastes there is even a planned vinyl edition to follow. I have checked with Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings and this deluxe presentation is the only edition being made available.
A small grumble I have is the ample room available to have accommodated a Schumann overture on each of the two discs. The sound engineers at the Philharmonie are to be congratulated for providing appealing, transparent, well balanced sound with all the instrumental detail wonderfully audible. These are live recordings containing virtually no extraneous noise and I notice that the applause has been removed. As one might expect there has been a lot of time and care lavished on this inaugural release of the Berliner Philharmoniker’s own label. Typical of the work this orchestra undertakes, everything is done with integrity, precision and total empathy for the music. The set is performed with impressive solidity, feeling natural and unmannered with Rattle choosing judicious pacing throughout communicating a spring-like freshness to Schumann’s romantic vision. I can see these Rattle recordings of the Schumann symphonies becoming the benchmark for many years to come such is the excellence of the Berliner Philharmoniker’s performances.
Masterwork Index: Schumann symphonies
Pure Audio Blu-ray disc:
(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
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