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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No. 1 in B flat major, Op. 38 'Spring'
Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op. 61
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 97 ‘Rhenish’
Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120 (1851 revised version)
Staatskapelle Dresden/Christian Thielemann
rec. live, October 2018, Suntory Hall, Tokyo, Japan
Bonus: “Discovering Schumann - Christian Thielemann about Schumann´s Symphonies”
Subtitles: German (Original Language), English, Korean, Japanese
PCM Stereo, DTS-HD MA 5.0; 16:9, High definition
Booklet in English, German, French
Reviewed in Surround sound
C MAJOR 708504 Blu-ray [182 mins]

Filmed symphonic cycles on Blu-ray disc now include Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Sibelius and Shostakovich. In the case of Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann and nearly Mahler (Chailly’s cycle lacks only the 2nd Symphony), there are two or more cycles. So the novices we all once were can now learn much of the core symphonic repertoire viewing the performance, and with high definition sound. What difference will this bring to understanding? Does the conductor split the first and second violins left and right, or double the woodwind in Bruckner when the composer asks only for pairs? Now we can see the answer. These are not studio-made, but all live concert performances, but so are many audio-only cycles nowadays. Magazines and sites like this one assume a norm of the sound only carrier or download, still offering vastly more new issues and archival choice of course, and that will last a while yet.

This issue of the four Schumann symphonies was filmed live in Tokyo, when the Dresden State orchestra were on tour in October 2018. We see the hall’s exterior among Tokyo’s tower blocks as a prelude, the players in the band room, the conductor’s entry from backstage, then from the audience viewpoint. All the usual cues of a filmed concert are there as unobtrusive scene-setting. Once the arrival of spring is announced by trumpets and horns (only the first are shown) we are launched upon a splendid account of the First Symphony. The conducting serves the music with immaculate precision (Thielemann uses no score). Each marking is observed, but never underlined. There is for instance a small transitional passage (pps. 46-47 in my Dover reprint of the Breitkopf score in Clara Schumann’s edition) where the strings in ten bars go from p to pp to ppp. You can really hear the precision of this diminuendo, and its role in fading away before the intensity picks up again. It’s the sort of detail that assists the sense of symphonic narrative, like a storyteller lowering the voice before a big revelation. The Larghetto is ideally paced, flowing but with enough space for the musicians to explore its tender heart, as when the cellos have the theme. The scherzo may have been given livelier renditions, and Thielemann sees it as a weightier affair than some conductors – and here we can see that the players believe in it. Hence the first trio hardly sounds molto piu vivace, though the very different second trio is more skittish. The finale is a good showcase for this famous orchestra, especially the depth and quality of the string tone when Schumann sends them into the middle and lower registers.

Three of Schumann’s symphonies open with a slow introduction, and each is quite different. The Symphony No.2 (actually the third to be written) opens with a questing rather than arresting Sostenuto assai to which the Dresdeners give full value over its unusual length. When the allegro ma non troppo is reached its first theme is given rhythmic bite by the fierce accenting of its second beat in each bar. The scherzo has been called the only really virtuoso movement in the symphonies, its opening once used often as a test piece for violinists’ auditions, a test the string players of the Staatskapelle pass effortlessly, despite the sprightly tempo Thielemann sets. The first real slow movement in the symphonies, an adagio espressivo, follows, and its lyricism is wonderfully caught by the orchestra. Karajan once said that the Staatskapelle playing “shone like old gold” and this is the movement that best displays that burnished quality, especially in the strings. But the excellent principal clarinet, oboe, and flute also deserve their solo bows when invited by the conductor at the end. The finale is done with a sweeping authority that takes the listener compellingly through what is in context its considerable length (sixty-one pages of score). Amazing to think that this great work was once neglected and judged inferior.

The Third Symphony (the “Rhenish”) opens with one of the finest amongst all these movements, its syncopated main theme rarely absent, and here given with sure power, if not quite the surging joy a quicker pulse might bring. Again Thielemann takes a strategic view with a steady tempo aimed at accumulating momentum, which it certainly does. And after all the marking Lebhaft means “lively” which need not imply a swift tempo. The varied return of the theme on the horns, one of the great “Waldhorn” moments in music, is sonorously achieved. The scherzo trots agreeably along, the horns again bringing their characteristic central European sound to this rustic party, and coping fearlessly with the high tessitura. After a delicate and poised account of the third movement, the evocation of Cologne cathedral is suggested by the ancient-sounding texture and an especially noble sound from the trombones. In the finale, as in other movements in the cycle, Thielemann’s rubato is quite marked at times, but always with a musical purpose. If you suffer from rubato allergy with some conductors, sample this movement first.

Symphony No. 4, heard here in its usual revised version of 1851, is on a performance level with the other works, which is to say it is excellent. Thielemann’s sense of the larger picture, of the music’s end goal, seems to co-exist with an ability to relish the passing moment as well, without imperilling momentum. And with such fine players the various wind and string solos in the Fourth are worth the relishing. The first movement is passionate and driven, while the Romance is given all the charm it requires, and the violin solo which poetically decorates the main theme has the right improvisatory feeling. The scherzo has plenty of vigour, and the switch to the contrast of the trio is ably achieved. Thielemann says in the “extra” that the main issue in performing these works is to make these contrasts believable for the audience, which requires great concentration from the players. He speaks too of the transition to the finale as one of the great transitions in music, and links it to Wagner - but keeps it sounding like Schumann. The excitement of the closing pages makes a fine coda to the whole set and not only to this symphony.

I viewed that “extra” after writing most of the above, and I should have viewed it first, as Thielemann speaks simply to camera (no interviewer is seen or heard), and what he says illuminates so much of what he does. In particular he speaks of the need for rubato, and flexibility of tempo, to invigorate this music. Too little and the rhythms become mechanical, too much and it doesn’t hold together. He feels it is important that the orchestra is also an opera orchestra, as they can be as flexible as they are when accompanying singers. He speaks of the sound that his players can achieve, the horns and especially the strings – “all the movements are difficult for the violins”. These performances where obviously deeply considered and prepared, and that reaps rewards when the film captures them well into the tour (after China and Macau) in Japan. He also has a few words about each movement and about Schumann’s gift more generally.

The Blu-ray sound is very good indeed, as integrated as the blend of the Dresden Staatskapelle, and the hall seems to provide a near-ideal ambience. The filming is involving but without distraction. The track numbers are listed in the booklet (one per movement and one each for the opening and closing applause for each work). But there is no way to access the same list from the Blu-ray menu. One begins at the beginning and then one can jump forward though the movements or enter the movement number one wants. Pressing “top menu” just takes you back to the very opening of the disc each time.

There are two rivals in the Blu-ray format. Paavo Järvi and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen’s Schumann symphonies were captured in four concerts at “Pier 2”, a converted harbourside warehouse in Bremen’s docklands (C major, 2012). The interpretations are quite different from Thielemann’s, first in scale because the group is a chamber orchestra, but also because the tempi are generally a bit swifter. The musical results are also excellent, arguably with more modern interpretations than the Dresden series. The extras are good too with each symphony introduced by Järvi (and his musicians) more fully than by Thielemann, and there is even a film about the making of the film!

The versions by the Berlin Philharmonic under Rattle (Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings, 2014) are quite outstanding, perhaps the best of all. The expensive package has multiple sound formats in addition to the film, including Blu-ray audio, CDs, and access to downloads of the studio master audio files. But that recording is not strictly comparable, since it has the first, rather different, 1841 version of the D minor symphony (which became the No.4 we know only when revised a decade later). This is valuable in itself, as are Rattle’s thoughts in interview as to why he prefers it. The performances overall are as swift as the Bremen ones, for as Rattle says “you can be incredibly profound without being heavy or slow”. So we now have three very valid Blu-ray sets of these splendid works. Suffice to say that this new Dresden one is also very fine on its own terms.

Roy Westbrook

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