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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No. 1 in B flat Op.38 “Spring” [33:12]
Symphony No. 2 in C Op.61 [38:56]
Symphony No. 3 in E flat Op.97 “Rhenish” [34:32]
Symphony No. 4 in D minor Op. 120 [31:41]; Manfred overture Op.115 [13:13]
London Symphony Orchestra/Yondani Butt
rec. 2011/12, Abbey Road Studios, London
NIMBUS NI7099 [78:08 + 73:28]

Yondani Butt was born in Macau. He studied conducting at Indiana University, where he was majoring in chemistry. He continued to study conducting at the University of Michigan while pursuing his chemistry degree. He died on 28th August 2014 just a couple of years after he made these Schumann recordings. I recently listened to his coupling of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies Nos. 5 and 6 (Nimbus Alliance NI7104) and noted his preference for relaxed tempi and lush romanticism, sometimes at the expense of fire, drive and accurate ensemble. However, his 2 CD set still offers good value for money, superb recording quality and a fresh, emotional view of Tchaikovsky’s symphonies. I approached his Schumann cycle with those Tchaikovsky recordings still fresh in the memory.

The opening of the Spring symphony doesn’t spring to life as it should. The whole movement seems to focus on orchestral detail and clarity of line but there’s something missing in terms of sheer joy and thrust. Butt also ignores the exposition repeat. The second movement is more suited to the conductor’s approach and he produces a beautiful stream of orchestral tone. The scherzo is fine but the finale lacks tension and animation. This movement should be Allegro animato e grazioso but what we get is just the gracioso element. Again, the exposition repeat is ignored.

The second symphony is thoroughly enjoyable. Once again. Butt goes for beauty of tone above almost everything else. Drama and bite (just like his Tchaikovsky) aren’t at the top of his list of priorities. The first movement is gentle, romantic and restrained with all the edges smoothed off when compared to conductors such as Zinman. The exposition repeat is ignored but the movement has a good forward momentum and Butt drive the final bars to a fine climax. The scherzo is tidy and fleet of foot. The lack of drama and overstatement is welcome here and the overall effect is light and charming. Butt clearly loves the slow movement and he plays it with reverence and deep emotion. This is really heart-warming. The finale is wonderful with the same sort of atmosphere that Mendelssohn depicted in his Italian symphony. The playing shows an orchestra in extremely happy form.

Schumann’s Rhenish is a magnificent symphony. The opening is maybe a little too relaxed but the horns sing out gloriously. The lack of forward drive is, again, a typical Butt Achilles Heel. The final few bars need more energy. He’s far more at home in the slow movement. The famous Cologne Cathedral movement gets off to a scrappy start – the opening chord is a shambles - but it soon settles down and Butt gives us another fine example of his ability to generate atmosphere and depth of feeling in slow movements. In the finale, we hear some of the finest playing in the set so far and, at last, that little extra ingredient of fire and energy as he whips the music towards a superb peroration.

The fourth symphony is generally successful. The opening movement is still deliberately paced but there is a sense of momentum underlying the interpretation and there’s more life to the playing compared to the Spring symphony. The second movement allows Butt to wallow in beautiful orchestral tone again but the playing is light and airy. The scherzo has some excellent contrasts of dynamic and is quite earthy and brusque. However, it succeeds in the same way that Klemperer’s Peasants Merrymaking in Beethoven’s 6th does. The finale opens very mysteriously, almost Brucker-like, but the bars leading into the main movement proper sound unconvincing. The tempo is somewhat stodgy and Butt sacrifices forward momentum in order to achieve textural clarity.  

The Abbey Road sound quality throughout is superb with a natural balance and good inner clarity. The London Symphony Orchestra plays very well for their conductor despite occasional lapses in ensemble. As noted in Butt’s Tchaikovsky recordings, there seems to be a lapse in his beat that forces to orchestra to guesstimate some of their entries from time to time. These are minor blemishes. As a cycle at bargain price this should do well despite its minor flaws. It doesn’t challenge the top recommendations which, for myself, are still David Zinman on Arte Nova with the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich (82876 57743-2) recorded in 2004 and Wolfgang Sawallisch with the Dresden Staatskapelle (EMI Classics 5 67768-2) from 1972.

John Whitmore

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