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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No. 1 in B flat major, Op 38 ‘Spring’ (1841) [34:09]
Symphony No. 2 in C major, op 61 (1846) [40:08]
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op 98 ‘Rhenish’ (1850) [37:06]
Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op 120 (1841/1851) [30:49]
San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas
rec. live, November 2015 (1 & 3); March & April 2016 (2); May 2016 (4), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco
SFS MEDIA SACD SFS0071 [74:17 + 67:55]

I’ve enjoyed some very fine cycles of the Schumann symphonies in recent years. There was the de-luxe set in which Sir Simon Rattle conducted the Berliner Philharmoniker on the orchestra’s own label (review) and also the lithe set from Robin Ticciati which didn’t come to me for review but which I bought on the strength of Simon Thompson’s very enthusiastic review – an investment I didn’t regret. In approaching this new cycle from San Francisco, taken from live performances like the Rattle set, I decided against using Ticciati’s excellent cycle as my comparator simply because he uses the smaller orchestral forces of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and so comparisons with the full San Francisco Symphony might be akin to apples and pears.

In an introductory essay, one of the comments that Michael Tilson Thomas makes is that in Schumann – and in the standard repertoire as a whole – his approach “is to vary the number of musicians playing at any given time. According to the musical situation, the orchestra might morph from a large ensemble to a chamber orchestra and vice versa.” That might lead you to expect to hear a fairly radical orchestral sound but I have to say, with due respect, that after listening to these recordings several times, my ears could not discern any such radicalism. Tilson Thomas cites a specific example of his way with the music: the opening of the Romanza movement of the Fourth Symphony, where he reduces the number of musicians accompanying the oboe/cello duet so as to foreground the two soloists. To be sure, he achieves delicacy here but when I sampled the self-same passage in Rattle’s recording I found a comparable refinement. Whether Rattle similarly pares down his forces at that point I’m unable to say.

The Tilson Thomas cycle kicks off with a proud fanfare at the beginning of the ‘Spring’ Symphony: the introduction to the first movement sounds very weighty in the loud passages. The Allegro molto vivace that follows is brisk and lively. However, when I turned to Rattle’s recording – using the CDs rather than the Blu-ray video - I found that his introduction also had power when needed but benefitted from a clearer recorded sound and his allegro was even lighter on its feet. I had begun by listening to the MTT set a couple of times in isolation and, even then, I’d not warmed to the recorded sound in this symphony. For my taste it’s too close and makes Schumann’s orchestration seem heavy, an impression that’s reinforced by the resonance of Davies Symphony Hall. I find the Rattle recording, also made live, much more pleasing in this respect. There’s just a bit more distance on the sound and I didn’t feel the sound of the orchestra was as much ‘in my face’. I should say that I liked the SFS Media sound in the other three symphonies rather more but, even so, the Berliner Philharmoniker sound is more to my taste throughout the cycle.

In the second movement of the ‘Spring’ MTT moulds the music warmly, though I feel that Rattle’s performance flows rather more naturally. The Scherzo is described by the SFS annotator, James M Keller, as “muscular”, a description that fits MTT’s delivery of the music. Rattle is a bit less sturdy in manner. Both conductors present the Trio material in a fairly similar fashion. Tilson Thomas leads an attractive and lightly dancing reading of the finale but for my money Rattle is wittier and the BPO point the music even more enticingly than their excellent San Francisco rivals. Overall, I think the San Francisco performance of the symphony is good but on balance I prefer Rattle.

Tilson Thomas achieves suspense in the introduction to the Second Symphony. In fact, both he and Rattle do the opening movement very well. Both conductors present lithe accounts of the Scherzo and achieve delicacy in the Trio sections. However, in the Trio material Tilson Thomas is somewhat more direct in style – beneficially so, I believe; Rattle has a tendency to linger a little too much over certain expressive points. Both conductors bring out the melancholy that informs the Adagio espressivo and their respective orchestras play the music eloquently. This is a lovely movement and it’s a pleasure to hear two such sympathetic performances of it. Both accounts of the finale are successful.

If honours are even in the Second Symphony, though, I have a very clear preference when it comes to the ‘Rhenish’. MTT opens the first movement strongly, the rhythms vigorous. However, I soon began to wonder if the performance was not too sturdy. When I turned to Rattle I found what I was missing in the San Francisco account. Rattle is more energetic and lively and he and his orchestra achieve more lift in the rhythms. This is a movement in which the horn section gets several opportunities to shine. The first comes at 2:48 in the MTT performance where the horns proclaim joyously the movement’s main theme. The San Francisco horns do well here – as do their Berlin counterparts. But if you want to hear the effect of this moment really maximized then listen to the 1997 DG Archiv recording by Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique whose horns ring out proudly above the rest of the band to thrilling effect here and elsewhere. Reverting to the modern instrument recordings by Tilson Thomas and Rattle, I felt increasingly as the first movement unfolded that MTT’s way with the music is too heavy and missing a crucial bit of life – he takes 10:27 against Rattle’s 8:54. Furthermore, I find Rattle’s reading is more nuanced.

James Keller points out in his valuable notes on the symphonies that Schumann originally thought to entitle the second movement ‘Morning on the Rhine’. You can certainly hear a rolling river in the music and for my money it’s Rattle who achieves the more natural flow. He also seems to have a lighter hand on the tiller in the third movement. Both conductors are very effective in the solemn music of the fourth movement, said to depict Cologne Cathedral. However, midway through the movement the music becomes – or should become – rather more urgent for a while. It’s Rattle who best achieves this. And Rattle is much more satisfying in the finale, too. If the fourth movement depicts a solemn ceremony in Cologne Cathedral does not the finale show us the congregation emerging into the bright sunshine at the end of the service? If so, the worshippers have rather more of a spring in their step as we listen to Rattle. Tilson Thomas is nowhere near as light-footed – nor as engaging. I can perhaps sum up my reactions to the respective accounts of the finale by saying that Rattle and his orchestra sound joyful but, by comparison, Tilson Thomas and his orchestra seem like a group of sturdy burghers. I’d say that Rattle is the clear winner in this symphony and it’s revealing that while, to my ears, he doesn’t rush through the symphony his performance takes just 30:38 whereas the Tilson Thomas version occupies 37:06 (including some applause at the end).

Schumann composed his D minor symphony in 1841, hot on the heels of the ‘Spring’ Symphony. That first symphonic essay was premiered at Leipzig in March 1841 in the Gewandhaus under the baton of Mendelssohn, no less. It was well received but the premiere of the D minor symphony, also in the Gewandhaus, the following December, was not a success and Schumann effectively withdrew the work. He returned to it in 1851 and revised it substantially, especially in terms of the orchestration. It was this revised version that became established in the repertoire and Michael Tilson Thomas, like many conductors before him, opts for the 1851 score. In recent years some conductors have reverted to Schumann’s first thoughts. Sir John Eliot Gardiner went so far as to record both versions in his 1997 set of the symphonies, referenced earlier. Simon Rattle opts for the 1841 version, so comparisons between his recording and the Tilson Thomas account are not strictly comparable, though I will make a few comparative observations. In passing, I spotted in the documentation accompanying the Rattle set that it appears that the 1841 score was not performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker until 1988; the conductor on that occasion was the late Jesús López Cobos. Incidentally, in the Rattle set the D minor symphony is very clearly presented as the second of Schumann’s symphonies, both in terms of the layout of the CDs – it follows No 1 on the first CD – and in the notes.

Tilson Thomas delivers a brooding reading of the Ziemlich Langsam introduction. By contrast, Rattle is much swifter – controversially so? MTT’s direction of the main body of the movement is lively, in accordance with the Lebhaft marking. It’s weightier than Rattle’s treatment of the music but I think Tilson Thomas’s approach is appropriate given that he’s performing Schumann’s revised thoughts on the work. He makes this a full-blooded Romantic movement and his performance has strength as well as life. The San Francisco performance of the touching Romanze is very nicely done. The approach to the third movement is good and firm. I like Rattle’s rather nimbler way with this music but it must be said that the way Rattle moulds the music at times may not be to everyone’s taste. Tilson Thomas also moulds and shapes the music, of course, but I think he does so more fluently. In the slow introduction to the finale Tilson Thomas achieves a fine sense of suspense. He then releases the tension in an energetic account of the Lebhaft music. Here, Rattle moves the music along considerably faster. Tilson Thomas may yield in terms of pace and, to an extent, in terms of energy but I like his way with the movement: he enjoys Schumann’s major-key optimism. As is the case with the other three symphonies, the performance of the Fourth is greeted with vociferous appreciation by the San Francisco audience.

How, then, do I sum up this San Francisco cycle of the Schumann symphonies? There’s a good deal to admire, not least the consistently fine playing of the San Francisco Symphony. Michael Tilson Thomas’s engagement with the music is never in doubt and much of what he does is persuasive. However, I find his reading of the ‘Rhenish’ disappointing – others may disagree. I prefer Rattle to Tilson Thomas in the ‘Spring’ Symphony and – strongly so – in the ‘Rhenish’. The recorded sound on these hybrid SACDs is quite good, though I don’t think that it is anything out of the ordinary and I found the sound for the First Symphony somewhat oppressive. Overall, I prefer the Rattle set, both as performances and as a sonic experience, though you may prefer to hear Schumann’s final thoughts on the D minor symphony and the Berliner Philharmoniker package, which includes a Blu-ray video disc is a more expensive proposition, though the extra outlay is worth it in my opinion.

John Quinn

Previous review: Michael Cookson



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