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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No. 1 in B flat major, Op 38 ‘Spring’ (1841) [31:13]
Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op 120 (original version, 1841) [23:45]
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/François-Xavier Roth
rec. live, 16-18 December, 2018 (4); 16-18 June, 2019 (1), Kölner Philharmonie. DXD
MYRIOS MYR028 SACD [55:16]

François-Xavier Roth became Principal Conductor of the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln in 2015 and I’ve already admired greatly their fine recordings of Mahler: the Third symphony and the Fifth. I learned from the booklet accompanying this new SACD that in the orchestra’s 2018/19 season, during which the present performances were given, there was a particular focus on the music of Robert Schumann. I wonder, therefore, if Myrios Classics have live recordings of the Second and Third symphonies waiting in the wings.

It’s not all that long ago that I reviewed live recordings of the Schumann symphonies by Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the LSO. There, the couplings were different: the First was paired with the Third symphony (review) while the Second and Fourth symphonies were coupled (review). In listening to these new Roth performances, I haven’t made detailed comparisons with the Gardiner versions. However, I think one observation is pertinent. I’m aware that some listeners don’t like the sound of recordings that emanate from London’s Barbican Hall. Though I’ve rarely been greatly troubled by that, I have to report that the sound on this new disc opens up rather more than is the case on the LSO Live discs and there’s much more of a sense of space around the orchestra. That, I suspect, is due to a more pleasing acoustic in the Kölner Philharmonie.

The pairing of these two symphonies is logical since both were composed in 1841 – the D minor symphony only became labelled as Schumann’s Fourth after it was revised and relaunched in 1851.

The First symphony was composed at great speed in January and February 1841 and it achieved its first performance in March of that year when Mendelssohn led the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig in a very successful premiere. Thus, the symphony came into being not long after Schumann was finally able to marry Clara and the resulting sense of joy and optimism pervades the symphony. Roth and his orchestra grabbed my attention right from the start; the Andante un poco maestoso has just the right degree of breadth; not too much, but not too little. Then the main Allegro molto vivace is full of bustling energy. The performance is splendidly athletic and positive; Roth and the players bring the music vividly and happily to life. They make this movement really enjoyable for the listener. By contrast, the Larghetto is relaxed and genial. Here, it seems to me that Roth shows the beneficent shadow of Beethoven hovering; the music sings delightfully. As for the finale, Schumann’s music radiates happiness and contentment and that is certainly manifest in this performance, not least the jubilant conclusion. This performance of the ‘Spring’ symphony seems to me to be a conspicuous success.

The booklet essay reminds us that Brahms strongly preferred the original version of the D minor symphony over Schumann’s revised 1851 score. He lamented to Clara that the revised version “certainly lost something in terms of grace, lightness and clarity”. François-Xavier Roth, too, nails his colours to the 1841 mast, as did Sir John Eliot Gardiner in his LSO Live recording. The score used in this performance is, apparently, edited by Jon Finson but, apart from mentioning that in the track listing the Myrios documentation gives no more information about Mr Finson’s edition, so far as I can see.

Roth makes the Andante con moto introduction quite light of tone – and the performance is definitely none the worse for that. When the Allegro di moto is reached (1:37) the playing is deft and light on its feet; one can certainly appreciate the grace, lightness and clarity to which Brahms referred. I must also record that where the music requires strength of character the performance does not fall short, but the primary impression that I gained was of lightness of touch.

The Romanza is essentially a Lieder ohne Worte and Roth leads a delectable performance. It’s nice to see that the player of the important violin solos in the central section is credited. That’s no more than the graceful playing of Natalie Chee deserves. There’s plenty of rhythmic vigour in the Scherzo; I like that, and I like too the fluency of the trio. The transition to the finale is splendidly handled; the tension is skilfully increased until the Allegro vivace bursts forth. From that point on the performance is distinguished by its vitality and – as in the first movement – by lightness of touch. Overall, Roth leads a very fine and invigorating performance of the D minor symphony; he most certainly makes a persuasive case for Schumann’s first thoughts.

As I hope I’ve made clear, this SACD contains two estimable Schumann performances. The playing of the Gürzenich-Orchester is absolutely first rate throughout and I admired François-Xavier Roth’s interpretations very much. I was completely convinced by these performances, not least because Roth so effectively allows Schumann to speak for himself. I do hope that he and the orchestra also recorded the Second and Third symphonies.

The performances were recorded in DXD (Digital eXtreme Definition) sound and I got very impressive results listening to the stereo layer of the SACD. As I mentioned near the start of this review, there’s a nice amount of space round the sound and the engineers have achieved excellent clarity. Though the recordings were set down at concerts I detected no audience noise at all; there’s no applause at the end of either symphony.

However, I must criticise one aspect of Myrios’s presentation. The disc is housed in a carboard sleeve which is an integral part of the packaging. The disc fits far too snugly into this sleeve and I found it impossible to extract the disc without grasping the playing surface quite firmly in my fingers. Furthermore, because the disc fits tightly into the sleeve I’m concerned that one could easily scratch the disc in trying to remove it. I wish Myrios would adopt the solution used by BIS do in their excellent environmentally friendly packaging and house the disc in a protective thin paper envelope.

John Quinn

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