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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856) Violin Concerto WoO 23(1853) [31:23] Symphony No. 1 “Spring” Op. 38 (1841) [30:52]
Phantasy for Violin and Orchestra Op. 131 (1853) [15:02]
Thomas Zehetmair (violin, direction); Orchestre de Chambre de Paris
rec. February 2015, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris. ECM RECORDS 2396 [77:18]
Thomas Zehetmair recorded Schumann’s Violin Concerto for Teldec back in the early 1990s, and this has long been a highly recommendable version. Comparing and contrasting this with the ECM recording throws up some interesting points, but Zehetmair’s own association with the work is worth noting: “The concerto has gripped me since I first encountered it. But back in the early 1980s there was only the Schünemann edition of the score available. As worthy as it was, it was nevertheless full of errors. So I meticulously studied the original manuscript in 1988 in the Berlin State Library, and recently contributed to the new Breitkopf ‘Urtext’ edition. Where the concerto was once considered a poor relative in Schumann’s oeuvre, today no one doubts that the work belongs to the greatest that has been written for violin and orchestra.”
The ECM recording throws up a few problems. The recording is rather on the dry side, which is a little unexpected from this label. This rather unforgiving aspect of the production is worth bearing in mind, but the main attraction is Zehetmair’s playing, which is freer and more impressive than in the older recording. There is little difference in terms of timings, the outer movements being a little more expansive, the central Langsam a tad tighter but still with plenty of warmth and depth of expression. Whether or not you agree that this is amongst the greatest of violin concertos it is certainly an attractive and very fine work and richly deserving of the excellent performance it gets here.
Schumann’s symphonies are well covered on record, and this is a decent enough version conducted by Thomas Zehetmair. Once again, the dry acoustic makes for an intimate listen rather than one to be relished in more typical circumstances and there seems to be a microphone placed in the timpani player’s top pocket, but the performance has plenty of dynamic contrast and excellent playing. For a chamber orchestra comparison I had another listen to Thomas Dausgaard on the BIS label (see review), which is also recorded in a fairly close perspective. Dausgaard’s first movement is faster and has more excitement that Zehetmair, but the latter is more prepared to give string warmth through vibrato, noticeable in the Larghetto. Listening over my usual 2nd mortgage headphones I found myself bothered more by the ECM recording as things progressed however, with perfect clarity from each orchestral section but plenty of imagination needed to make the sound blend as an orchestral unit. If you listen to the musical conversations going on in the Scherzo and Trio movement this can have its own entertainment value, but the glue sticking everything together seems to have dried just a little awkwardly.
The less often heard Phantasy was written with the great violinist Joseph Joachim in mind, and Thomas Zehetmair relishes the virtuoso nature of the soloist’s part, using Schumann’s original version rather than editions tinkered with by others. Zehetmair’s declamatory playing gives this ‘difficult’ music an almost operatic character, putting plenty of life and character into a performance that is arguably the most successful on this recording.
Schumann’s Violin Concerto is a fine work, but there is a case for the more upholstered sound of a full symphony orchestra doing the music more favours. Ilya Kaler with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra on Naxos is a good example, though perhaps a little too far in the other direction being set in the lively acoustic of a big empty space, the Lighthouse Concert Hall in Poole. Closer to ideal is Isabelle Faust with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra on Harmonia Mundi (see review), which to my mind is little short of revelatory; using period instruments, celebrating Schumann’s remarkable ‘wrong notes’ and creating worlds of heart-stopping drama missing from many other recordings. As for an introduction to the ‘Spring’ Symphony I would suggest a look at something like Wolfgang Sawallisch’s Dresden Staatskapelle recordings on EMI/Warner (see review) which have a justified classic status and enjoy the warm resonance of the Lukaskirche in Dresden.