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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-56)
Symphony No. 1 in B flat major, Op. 38 ‘Spring’ (1841) [34.09]
Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op. 61 (1845/46) [40.08]
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 97 ‘Rhenish’ (1850) [37.06]
Symphony No. 4 in D minor (1841/1851) [30.49]
San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas
rec. live 13/15 November 2015 (3); 19-22 November 2015 (1); 30 March/2 April 2016 (2); 19/22 May 2016 (4); Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco
SFS MEDIA SFS0071 [2 SACDs: 74.17 + 67.55]

On its own record label, the San Francisco Symphony under music director Michael Tilson Thomas has released a double SACD set of the complete symphonies of Robert Schumann recorded live at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco (Incidentally Tilson Thomas first conducted the San Francisco Symphony as far back as 1974 with Mahler’s Ninth Symphony).

In the booklet notes Tilson Thomas explains how with the Schumann symphonies, as with the standard repertoire, he will “vary the number of musicians playing at any given time”. This means the size will fluctuate from the proportions of a large orchestra to the size of a chamber ensemble depending on the character of the music. He approaches the symphonies from the standpoint of the composer’s piano compositions “with all its colour, unusual effects and voicings” as if being performed on the piano.

The Symphony No. 1 ‘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’. It was Felix Mendelssohn, Schumann’s mentor, who conducted the premiere of the score in 1841 at the Gewandhaus Leipzig. In the opening movement this performance of enjoyment and optimism from Tilson Thomas evokes choppy seas, flowing effortlessly forward with ideal pacing. The sensitivity of the Larghetto is admirable, which sounds so tender it might easily suggest parents looking down on a new born baby. In the Scherzo Tilson Thomas presides over a proud and stately performance that evokes for me a view of an imposing structure, like a castle. Here the pace at times feels a touch hesitant. In the final movement Allegro animato e grazioso, ‘Spring’s farewell’, Tilson Thomas brings out a joyous dance-like, almost balletic quality to the writing. My attention was drawn to the uplifting horn passage and the Pan-like flute solo serving as examples of the impressive individual detail.

Written in 1845/46 Symphony No. 2 is regarded as probably the most symphonic sounding of the set of four. Of a work that comes from a desperate, depressive period in the composer’s life, Schumann said it was “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 further explained “It is music of light and shade, sunshine and shadow”. It was again Mendelssohn who gave the first performance of the score in 1846 at the Gewandhaus Leipzig. In the opening movement the San Francisco Symphony provides a firm sense of engagement together with a sense of yearning and reflection evoking a country scene, with a most assured ending. The highly rhythmic Scherzo, so Mendelssohnian in character, is given a spirited reading, with the development towards the climax of the movement sounding especially impressive. In the lyrical Adagio Tilson Thomas is unhurried and a touch cautious yet successfully creates a mood of mystery. Here the outstanding string playing is especially expressive. Dramatically engaging in the closing movement, the orchestra plays boldly with uplifting determination as if acknowledging the composer’s optimistic state of mind.

From 1850, the last of the four to be written was Symphony No. 3 known as the ‘Rhenish’. Schumann wrote of the five movement symphony, “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 said that Schumann was inspired by the magnificent sight of the recently competed Cologne Cathedral and the Roman Catholic elevation ceremony of the Archbishop of Cologne to the rank of Cardinal. Simon Rattle, however, 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 himself gave the score’s première the following year in Dusseldorf. Marked ‘Lebhaft’, the opening movement, supposedly portraying Schumann’s first sight of Cologne Cathedral bathed in sunlight, sees Tilson Thomas in determined and urgent mood. Endearing and extremely effective in the Scherzo Tilson Thomas is a touch light in weight, providing a summer feel. The following Intermezzo sounds like a slower, calm and gentle version of the preceding movement. Containing an awesome sense of towering grandeur, and solemn at times, contrasted with ceremonial passages, under Tilson Thomas the writing of the fourth movement can certainly sound like a depiction of the Archbishop’s installation ceremony inside Cologne Cathedral. Joyous and uplifting, there is a fresh open-air character to the final movement, although I wanted a slightly brisker pace. With effective control from Tilson Thomas I find the conclusion particularly resolute.

Schumann composed his Symphony No. 4 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. Brahms believed in the superiority of the original score and he is responsible for rescuing the score, which he did at the expense of his friendship with Clara Schumann. With Tilson Thomas playing the 1851 version the attractive opening movement marked Ziemlich langsam – Lebhaft is quite beautifully played, with a notably light touch. In the Romanze, Schumann’s shortest movement in a symphony, Tilson Thomas provides a summery feel and again feels light in weight yet highly effective; the featherlight violin solo, subtly played, makes a divine impression. With uplifting buoyancy, Tilson Thomas lovingly moulds the Scherzo adding vivid colouration to the writing. A definite highlight is the final movement marked Langsam: Lebhaft, Tilson Thomas’s enthralling reading has model forward momentum and weight, and conveys a highly celebratory mood.

Recorded in live performance at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco the engineering team excel providing excellent clarity, presence and satisfying balance. There is virtually no extraneous noise and audience applause has been left in. Under Michael Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony is on outstanding form, playing exquisitely with gratifying tonal refinement and satisfying energy. My sense was one of slightly looking back to the elegance of the Classical era rather than totally embracing the full-blooded passion of the Romantic era that was burgeoning. Nevertheless, I tend to prefer readings of additional intensity and passion, and I find it hard to look away from a number of complete sets in particular played by Berliner Philharmoniker.

Recordings of the Schumann symphonies have proved enduringly popular with conductors both in the studio and live in concert. Over the years the Berliner Philharmoniker has made several recordings of the complete Schumann symphonies. Making a big impression are three excellent sets, all on Deutsche Grammophon and recorded at the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin/Dahlem, that have served me well over the years. These are the 1963/1964 accounts from conductor Rafael Kubelik, Herbert von Karajan in 1971 and James Levine from 1987/90. Best of all, Sir Simon Rattle’s set released in 2014 breathes new life into these Schumann symphonies and provides fresh and invigorating performances. Recorded live in 2013 at Philharmonie, Berlin, Rattle’s set, chosen to launch the orchestra’s own label Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings, is the one to own. In the Fourth Symphony Rattle performs the early 1841 version rather than the usually played 1851 revision. The sound engineers at Philharmonie provide excellent sound with instrumental detail splendidly audible. The release is available as a high-end, linen-bound CD/Blu-ray edition that includes the Schumann cycle in different formats comprising traditional audio CDs, a Blu-ray Disc in audiophile studio quality of 96kHz/24bit or as HD video with bonus footage and also included is an accompanying code which allows a download at an even higher resolution version online in up to 192kHz/24bit. I notice the recordings has now become available as a double Hybrid SACD set and separately as a 24-bit Download. Using the Mahler revisions of Schumann’s symphonies, of great interest too is Riccardo Chailly with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig in his 2006/07 recordings of the set - splendidly performed and recorded on Decca.

Michael Cookson



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