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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856) Symphony No. 1 in B-flat major, Op 38 (1841) [30:12]
Overture: Manfred, Op 115 (1848) 11:09]
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op 97 (1850) [30:29]
London Symphony Orchestra / Sir John Eliot Gardiner
rec. live, 7 & 10 February 2019, Barbican Hall, London. DSD LSO LIVE LSO0844 SACD [71:40]
Last year I reviewed live recordings of Schumann’s Second and Fourth symphonies in which Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducted the LSO. Those performances were given in March 2018. Just under a year later, Sir John returned to complete the cycle and here are the results. Once again, it’s been interesting to compare and contrast these new recordings with Gardiner’s 1997 DG Archiv recordings with the period instrument Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (ORR).
That DG set included a few works besides the four symphonies but the Manfred Overture was not among them; so far as I know, this is the first Gardiner recording of the piece. The overture formed part of incidental music that Schumann composed for a stage production of Byron’s Manfred in 1848 but it’s the only element of that score that is heard nowadays with any regularity. As Stephen Johnson points out in his booklet notes, Schumann probably encountered Byron’s Manfred when he was in his twenties but it really took hold of him in 1848 and it seems clear that there’s a strong element of self-identification. The result of Schumann’s obsession with Byron’s literary work is an overture of no little intensity and drama. Right from the start, the music is turbulent and unsettled and Gardiner brings out the nature of the piece in a compelling performance.
The dark drama of Manfred is a long way away from the two symphonies on this disc. The ‘Spring’ Symphony was Schumann’s first completed attempt at a symphony – the unfinished G minor symphony, the so-called ‘Zwickau’, of 1832-33 was included in Gardiner’s DG set. Schumann may have struggled with the symphonic concept earlier in his career but when he tried his hand again in 1841, he did so on the back of the surge of happiness and confidence that his marriage to Clara had provided in 1840. That confidence is readily apparent in the assertive opening of the ‘Spring’ Symphony. I think that the opening fanfare is even grander on the ORR version but the LSO also makes it sound very impressive. The main body of the movement – Allegro molto vivace – comes as a terrific outburst of energy in this LSO performance (2:06); and how thrillingly Gardiner handles the transition to the quick tempo. The performance of the movement as a whole has surging vitality and Gardiner ensures that Schumann’s music consistently moves forward with energy and enthusiasm; it’s a heady experience.
The Larghetto is a fraction slower in the ORR performance. That is a very good reading but with the LSO Gardiner seems to me to achieve an even better judged flow. Throughout all the works on this disc he encourages the LSO strings to minimize vibrato and the lean results are especially noticeable in this movement. The Scherzo receives a sturdy performance – I have a marginal preference for the slightly more urgent ORR version - and the swifter, good natured trio sections come off well. The new performance of the vivacious finale is very well done. There’s a short but most unusual moment midway through (4:40) when Schumann inserts a short, slower cadenza-like passage for horns followed by flute. The little episode has a touch of fantasy about it in this new recording. Gardiner drives the symphony to its conclusion excitingly, the music overflowing with energy and optimism.
The ‘Rhenish’ is a wonderful work and Gardiner’s LSO performance is a very fine one. Stephen Johnson rightly refers to the “headstrong 3/4 momentum” of the opening Lebhaft movement. That characteristic is much in evidence here, though I fancy that the ORR reading had even more lift to it. In one important respect I think the ORR recording has the edge. Schumann included some fantastic opportunities for the horn section in this movement. The LSO players take up the challenge with gusto (for example at 5:44). However, their ORR colleagues, playing on period instruments, make their horns ring out thrillingly at several crucial points in the score. I’m sure Stephen Johnson is correct to suggest that the Scherzo has “the character of an energetic rowing song”. Surely, Schumann had the Rhine in his mind’s eye here. Gardiner and the LSO certainly put me in mind of boats on a river.
Orchestra and conductor bring grace and elegance to the third movement. In the short Feierlich movement, Gardiner and the LSO invest the music with due solemnity – without ever risking portentousness. The ORR performance of this movement is a fraction broader but I don’t think the newcomer suffers by comparison. It’s often been said that the finale is akin to something along the lines suggested by Stephen Johnson: “stepping out of a vast, dimly-lit cathedral…into the bright sunlight of a bustling Rhineland market town.” Gardiner’s LSO performance is full of good cheer and optimism, though, making one last comparison, it would be remiss of me not to give a final salute to the horns of the ORR, who maintain their superb form in this movement. The LSO performance ends in exuberant optimism.
Sir John Eliot Gardiner has here equalled the achievement of the first instalment of his Schumann cycle with the LSO. As was the case with the earlier disc, he approaches the music with freshness and evident relish. I don’t believe that the earlier DG Archiv set with the ORR is superseded. Both sets of performances are absolutely excellent and the DG set included a number of works that weren’t covered in the LSO cycle: for example, both versions of the D minor symphony are included in the ORR set, which also benefits from an exhilarating account of the Konzertstück in F major for Four Horns and Orchestra, Op 86. On balance, I’d say that if you already possess the ORR recordings you can rest content. However, if you want single-disc versions then the twin LSO Live releases are not only convenient but also complement the ORR performances and are extremely satisfying in their own right. One of the ways in which the LSO Live recordings complement the previous versions is that these new performances are given on modern instruments and at today’s normal concert pitch. However, Gardiner has encouraged the LSO to play in the spirit of period practice and the players respond very well. A few years ago, I attended a concert at which another period instrument specialist encouraged one of the leading London orchestras (not the LSO) to adopt period styles of playing. The results sounded very uneasy but that’s definitely not the case here.
I listened to this hybrid SACD using the stereo layer and I got very good results. LSO Live’s documentation is excellent. Having given us Mendelssohn and Schumann cycles on disc, I wonder what the next offering from Gardiner and the LSO might be. Some months ago, my Seen and Heard colleague, Colin Clarke reported in highly enthusiastic terms on a Barbican performance of Josef Suk’s mighty Asrael Symphony. That’s not repertoire with which I would have associated Gardiner but it seems the results were magnificent. Might we hope for a release of that performance by LSO Live?