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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No. 1 in B flat major, Op. 38 ‘Spring’ (1841) [31:22]
Symphony No. 4 in D minor (first version of 1841) [23:51]
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln/François-Xavier Roth
rec. live, December 2018 (No. 4); June 2019 (No. 1) Kölner Philharmonie, Köln, Germany  

Released as a limited edition on SACD this new Robert Schumann album marks the partnership debut between Gürzenich Orchester Köln, its chief conductor François-Xavier Roth and the Myrios Classics label. In the Austro-German Romantic music tradition, Schumann’s cycle of four symphonies has long been core repertoire for many orchestras. I notice Schuman works were at the centre of the Gürzenich Orchestra’s 2018/19 season which included these live accounts.

Schumann’s music could be said to epitomise the German Romantic spirit and Simon Rattle described him as the ‘echt Romantic.’ Certainly, recordings of Schumann have proved enduringly popular with conductors and audiences alike. 1841 was a landmark year for Schumann as a major composer of symphonic works with the writing of the pair recorded here: the First Symphony in B flat major, widely known as the Frühlingssymphonie (‘Spring’), and the work which began life as an intended single movement Symphonic Fantasy, evolved into the Symphony in D minor and was then revised a decade later as the Fourth Symphony in D minor.

A work highly popular with audiences, the Spring Symphony was completed by Schumann in February 1841. It is the product of a joyous surge of activity from the thirty-year-old composer, who had the previous year married his beloved Clara (née Wieck). According to Clara’s diary, its title was chosen owing to the impact of the particular verse Im Tale blüht der Frühling auf! (In the valley, spring blooms forth), the final line of Frühlingsgedicht by Leipzig poet Adolf Böttger. Schumann discarded the original poetic titles he had intended for each movement: ‘Spring’s Awakening’, ‘Evening’, ‘Merry Playmates’ and ‘Spring’s Farewell’. Felix Mendelssohn, Schumann’s friend, conducted the premiere of the score in March 1841 in the Gewandhaus Leipzig.

François-Xavier Roth here does not conduct ‘big band’ Schumann symphonies, as was the vogue in the era of recordings by Furtwängler, Szell, Klemperer, Konwitschny, Sawallisch, Karajan, Kubelik, Bernstein, Solti et al. He uses a pared-down string section of around thirty-four strings, which, I have read, is around the figure Schumann used. In the opening movement marked Andante un poco maestoso – Allegro molto vivace, Roth ensures playing of sheer delight and unfettered optimism. It is not difficult to imagine Schumann being inspired by the first buds of spring, signalling new beginnings and the end of winter for another year. This is a glowing sound which runs a course that feels entirely instinctive, fluent and unforced. A feeling of weightlessness imbues the Larghetto and I sense a certain drowsy nocturnal quality mixed with yearning. In the third movement Scherzo, originally named ‘Merry Playmates’, Roth provides proud, confident, almost strutting rhythms to the Scherzo passages, the pair of trios having a Mendelssohn-like coherence and bucolic charm. The finale, ‘Spring’s farewell’, marked Allegro animato e grazioso, opens with a brass fanfare in the manner of a heroic pronouncement. The noticeably earnest feeling afforded to the ending of this impressive work is striking. Roth adequately handles the complicated tempo changes, dynamic and mood of the movement, yet in general I want to hear additional reserves of ebullient spirit.

The First Symphony completed, in May 1841 Schumann began his next symphony in D minor, completing it in the September. He originally conceived it as an unconventional single movement Symphonic Fantasy but subsequently employed a four-movement design. Using Italian tempo indications, it was introduced the same year by the Gewandhaus Leipzig conducted by Ferdinand David. Clara wrote in her diary ‘it’s a work from the innermost depths of his soul’.

Unconvinced by his D minor Leipzig score, Schumann put it aside for a decade. Desiring a fuller, richer sound and greater thematic unity, consequently in 1851 in Düsseldorf he substantially reworked the score and the revised version was introduced in 1853 under his own baton and was subsequently published as his Fourth Symphony in D minor, Op. 120 using German tempo indications. The next time the original Leipzig version was publicly performed was in 1889 with Kapellmeister Franz Wüllner conducting the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, the predecessor of the orchestra performing on this album. Over the years, of the two versions, the Düsseldorf has traditionally been more often performed, but Brahms believed the original D minor Leipzig version to be superior and thankfully rescued the score. His advocacy did not go down well with Clara, however, who expressed a firm preference for the Düsseldorf revision but the original 1841 Leipzig version is now being performed more often. For instance, when the Fourth Symphony was conducted by Jesús López-Cobos with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1988 it was the first time the world-renowned orchestra had performed the original version which Simon Rattle also routinely chose to perform and record during his sixteen-year tenure as its chief conductor. Here, François-Xavier Roth has chosen the original 1841 Leipzig version, too, and I notice that musicologist and Schumann specialist Jon Finson has edited the score used on this recording.

Marked Andante the opening movement undulates with writing of a rather serious character. In between, are contrasting episodes both bright and reasonably uplifting. Schumann’s shortest movement in a symphony is the Romanze, which feels calm with a light undertow of melancholy. Anyone familiar with Caspar David Friedrich’s renowned painting Man and Women Contemplating the Moon (c. 1824) might easily recall that pictorial inspiration here. In the centre section of the movement, concertmaster Natalie Chee provides an alluring violin solo on a variation of the main theme. The forward impetus the serious, powerful Scherzo, marked Presto, is breached by a pair of Trios of dreamy repose. The content of the challenging Finale might be heard as a depiction of the extremes of Schumann’s dual personality, exemplified through ‘Florestan’, the active side, which is passionate, boisterous, and occasionally impulsive, and ‘Eusebius’ the passive aspect, ruminative and sometimes dreamy and fanciful. Here, Roth promises energy and excitement yet only a moderate level is achieved, together with tempi shifts which do not really convince.

The interpretations of both symphonies here, although solidly played with the utmost sincerity, cannot challenge the fiercest of the competition. Of course, it is all about personal preference, but for me Roth’s contrasts and dynamics are not as marked as I want and the playing does not generate the same level of excitement and penetration compared with some of the finest rival recordings. Roth’s insights into Schumann’s radical, Romantic vision often disappoints, in generally uninspiring readings which are somewhat underwhelming in both drama and excitement. Repeated hearings serve only to emphasise those aspects of Roth’s interpretations which are not to my taste and make little impression.

This release was recorded at live concerts in the Kölner Philharmonie. This limited-edition album has implemented DXD the digital audio recording and editing format for SACD (hybrid), with mixes for both stereo and surround sound. I auditioned the album on my standard player using the CD layer. Gratitude is owed to the engineering team for providing lifelike sound of satisfying clarity and balance. Any extraneous noise is negligible, and I notice that audience applause has been removed. Detailed liner notes include an English translation of Martina Seeber’s splendid essay titled Schumann: Symphonistic Fantasies. My grumble is the short playing time on the album. There is plenty of space to have accommodated an overture or two for instance: Manfred, Op. 115; Genoveva, Op. 81; Julius Caesar, Op. 128; Overture, Scherzo and Finale, Op. 52 or even the Konzertstück for four horns and orchestra, Op. 86.

Over the years, many orchestras have recorded all or some of the Schumann symphonies. It is certainly a congested market and as a guide I mention those cycles that especially stand out for me. Referring to complete sets is probably best, as sometimes it is cheaper to purchase a full set rather than individual symphonies. One particular example is the Berlin Philharmonic, which has made three first-class recordings of the complete set, all on Deutsche Grammophon and recorded at Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Dahlem, Berlin, by Rafael Kubelik in 1963/1964, Herbert von Karajan in 1971 and James Levine in 1987/90. All three conductors favour the 1851 Düsseldorf version as was customary at the time.

Among penetrating accounts which I greatly admire for its energy and passionate expression is the complete set from Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden in 1972 in the Lukaskirche, Dresden. In the Fourth, Sawallisch opts for the 1851 Düsseldorf version and EMI has rightly cherry-picked this superb set for its ‘Great Recordings of the Century’ series. Inexplicably, the set is relatively new to me; prior to obtaining it, Rattle’s 2013 Berlin set was my benchmark account, but, better late than never, I am delighted to have become familiar with it in recent years. Kubelik in 1978/79 also recorded the Schumann set with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks on CBS/Sony, recorded in the Herkulessaal, Munich, with Kubelik selecting the 1851 Düsseldorf version of the Fourth.

In my view, the finest of the Berlin Philharmonic Schumann sets is Simon Rattle’s cycle released in 2014. These are performances which breathe new life into the symphonies, providing fresh and invigorating playing. Recorded live in 2013 in the Philharmonie, Berlin, Rattle’s set is very much to my taste and was chosen to launch the orchestra’s own label Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings. In the Fourth Symphony, Rattle performs the original 1841 Leipzig version, a progressively popular choice with conductors today especially those who employ elements of period-instrument practice. The sound engineers in the Philharmonie provide excellent sound with instrumental detail splendidly audible. Rattle’s set of the Schumann cycle is available as a linen-bound CD/Blu-ray edition which includes different formats. This cycle is now available as a double hybrid SACD set and separately as a 24-bit Download.

Of the more recent recordings, another splendid complete cycle is from the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas. Recorded live in 2015/16 in the Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, the orchestra plays beautifully with gratifying tonal refinement balanced with satisfying levels of energy which never jars. Employing the 1851 Düsseldorf version of the Fourth, Tilson Thomas’ set is on the orchestra’s own label SFS Media (SACD). For his cycle with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard, interestingly chose to record both the 1841 Leipzig and the 1851 Düsseldorf versions of the Fourth in Örebro in 2006/07 on the BIS label. Dausgaard’s number of players is fewer than Rattle’s and Roth’s with their pared-down string sections; he uses a chamber-size orchestra of just thirty-eight players which the booklet notes say approximates what Schumann would have used in Düsseldorf where he lived from 1850.

There are a several recordings of Schumann’s symphonies played by period-instrument ensembles. Those I know best are directed by Roy Goodman with The Hanover Band recorded 1993 on RCA Victor Red Seal; John Eliot Gardiner with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique recorded in 1997 on Archiv Produktion and Philippe Herreweghe recorded 1996/2006 on Harmonia Mundi. My first choice of those sets is Herreweghe conducting the Orchestre des Champs-Elysées, Paris and in the Fourth he somewhat surprisingly uses the 1851 Düsseldorf revision. Herreweghe’s accounts are glowing, bracing and lean, making it feel as if one were hearing these works anew. 

Of the sets by the younger generation of conductors, there are two which certainly deserve attention for their quality of freshness and drama, namely Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe on Deutsche Grammophon and Robin Ticciati with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on Linn, both released in 2014 and preferring the 1851 Düsseldorf revision of the Fourth. Of great interest is the splendidly performed set of Schumann symphonies recorded for Decca in 2006/07 by Riccardo Chailly with the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, contentious for its use of Mahler’s arrangements and employing the 1851 Düsseldorf version for the Fourth

Worth singling out is the now legendary recording of the Fourth Symphony conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic. Now almost seventy years old, this mono recording from May 1953 was produced under studio conditions at the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin and has achieved ‘classic’ status, regarded by some as the greatest ever recording of the Fourth. Furtwängler opts for the 1851 Düsseldorf revision. Just over a year after making the recording Furtwängler died in Baden-Baden age 68.

For those requiring a recent recording of the Schumann symphonies with a pared-down string section, my vote goes to Simon Rattle’s set with the Berlin Philharmonic. On period instruments, leading the field is Philippe Herreweghe directing the Orchestre des Champs-Elysées. If you are settling for a single cycle, it would be Wolfgang Sawallisch conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden on EMI, which is nearly fifty years old but a truly captivating ‘classic’ set which just improves the more I hear it.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: John Quinn

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