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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Overture: Genoveva, Op 81 (1847-49) [8:16]
Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op 120 (original version, 1841) [24:04]
Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op 61 (1845) [36:44]
London Symphony Orchestra / Sir John Eliot Gardiner
rec. live, 11 March 2018 (Symphony 2); 15 March 2018, Barbican Hall, London. DSD
LSO LIVE LSO0818 SACD [69:04]

It’s not long since Sir John Eliot Gardiner completed a series of Mendelssohn recordings with the LSO, several of which I heard and admired, as did some of my colleagues (review ~ review ~ review ~ review). One of the instalments that I missed had, as the coupling for Mendelssohn’s Third Symphony, the piano concerto of Robert Schumann (review). Now, Gardiner has put the full focus on Mendelssohn’s friend with this disc, the first in a Schumann symphony cycle for LSO Live.

Back in 1997, Gardiner made a revelatory set of recordings of Schumann symphonies and orchestral pieces. These were set down under studio conditions for DG Archiv with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. He uses similar sized forces on both his 1997 and 2018 recordings: the LSO string section (11/10/7/6/6) is almost identical in size to that of the ORR. In that three-disc DG set he included both the 1841 original version of the D minor and also the revised 1851 version. For LSO Live he has opted for the original score. Before we get to that, though, the disc opens with the Overture to Schumann’s only opera, Genoveva. The opera itself is not highly regarded, I believe, but the overture is a very good piece in its own right. Immediately, it’s clear that Gardiner has encouraged the LSO to play with a dark, lean tone, the strings using little or no vibrato. The resulting grainy sound suits the music, especially the brooding introduction, during the course of which good tension is achieved. The quick music (from 2:31) is full of vitality and the interjections from the horn section are exciting. Gardiner brings the overture to an heroic, joyful conclusion. This opening performance augurs well for what is to follow.

The 1841 version of Schumann’s Fourth was actually the second of his four numbered symphonies to be composed. The score is shorter and tauter in construction than the 1851 revision and the scoring is less full and Brahms was among those who preferred Schumann’s first thoughts, though Clara did not. The first movement begins with a slow introduction, marked Andante con moto, and it’s evident that Gardiner has an eye on the ‘con moto’ element of that instruction. Though he doesn’t rush things, the introduction is moved on well. The sound produced by the LSO successfully combines depth and edge. The Allegro molto (from 1:36) is very purposeful, the playing displaying crisp rhythms and clarity of detail. Comparing this performance with the 1997 DG recording, it seemed to me that the sound of the ORR’s woodwind and brass are, perhaps, a touch more acerbic – in a not unpleasant way - than the LSO. The ORR is not recorded as closely as the LSO and the venue used by DG (the Watford Colosseum) allows more space round the orchestra’s sound. Interpretatively, I noted no radical differences between Gardiner’s approach in 1997 and in 2018; that’s true of both symphonies.

Gardiner conducts the Romanza with a nice light touch and here I liked the contributions of oboist Olivier Stankiewicz and cellist Rebecca Gilliver. Their unisons seem more integrated than the more individually piquant sounds of their peers in the ORR, who are equally pleasing. The LSO’s performance of the Scherzo is full of vigour while the Trio is delectably phrased. That’s also true of the ORR performance where the softer-grained orchestral sound is very attractive and results in a good contrast between the Trio and the robust Scherzo. Gardiner handles the transition to the finale expertly in both recordings. The LSO account of the main Allegro vivace is even more fleet of foot than the ORR performance. The tempo difference is not huge but sufficient to register. Gardiner’s way with the music has an open-air, joyful feel to it and his new performance is truly spirited but never over-driven. This is a fine performance of the D minor symphony and the decision to go for the 1841 version is completely vindicated.

The C major symphony’s first movement has a slow introduction which, in Gardiner’s hands is relaxed, even serene. The LSO rendition of the introduction is excellent, though the ORR performance is, if anything, even finer. The Allegro, ma non troppo (1:47) has edge and thrust in the LSO performance; Gardiner and his incisive orchestra bring out a sense of striving and, at times, anxiety in the music. The ORR performance is excellent too but though their playing is on a par with the LSO’s in terms of energy it seems to me that the ORR performance overall is marginally less thrusting; perhaps that’s due to the difference between period and modern instruments, of course.

The Scherzo is brilliantly articulated by the LSO. The beautiful Adagio espressivo is memorably done in Gardiner’s latest recording, the LSO winds playing with genuine eloquence. This is a very fine performance. Mind you, the ORR account is equally distinguished and, in some ways, their gentler sound and the less close recording is even more desirable. Much of the finale is exultant and in this new recording Gardiner leads a very energetic performance which sweeps to a close of almost Beethovenian exaltation. His earlier recording is no less impressive. The ORR offers dynamic playing while the DG recording gives the orchestral sound a bit more space in which to breathe and that’s especially important in the brief relaxed interludes in this movement. Whilst continuing to relish the ORR recording I enjoyed Gardiner’s new account of the C major symphony very much: it’s a fine achievement.

This new LSO Live SACD is a desirable release. The sound, engineered as always for this label by Classic Sound, has presence, clarity and impact and though by comparison with the DG Archiv recording the sound is a bit closer, one is only aware of that when direct comparisons are made. Heard in isolation, the new recording is definitely impressive. LSO Live provide excellent documentation: in addition to very good notes by Stephen Johnson there are some illuminating comments about Schumann’s music by Sir John. His ORR set is still available and in its latest incarnation it has been expanded into 5-disc box with the not insubstantial addition of Gardiner’s fine recording of Das Paradies und die Peri. However, this new release is an extremely attractive proposition and collectors who already have the DG set will find it interesting to invest also in this disc to experience Sir John working with a modern instrument orchestra.

I await the next instalment of this series from LSO Live with keen anticipation.

John Quinn

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