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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No 3 in E flat major, Op. 97 ‘Rhenish’ [34.40]
Symphony No.4 in D minor, Op.120 [29.13]
Overture ‘Manfred’, Op.115 [12.06]
Symphonie-Orchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks/Rafael Kubelik
rec. Herkules-Saal, Munich, 18-26 May, 1979, September 27-30, 1978
Presto CD
SONY SBK48270 [76.13]

This reissued CD is only available on demand from Presto Classical, and is essential listening for any lover of Schumann’s symphonies.

It is easy to forget how rare were performances of Schumann symphonies as the composer conceived them until the 1960s. There was a myth that gifted though he was, he could not orchestrate. Most public performances, and those not common, used Mahler’s reorchestration. The two conductors who did most to reveal the soundness of Schumann’s original thoughts were Rafael Kubelik and his friend Otto Klemperer. Each would produce recorded cycles, Klemperer’s between 1961 and 1970, Kubelik in 1964 with the Berlin Philharmonic for DGG, and then again a decade and a half later, with his own Bavarian Radio Orchestra.

The Bavarian recording is in so many ways superior to those with the Berlin Philharmonic, though the latter were fine indeed, and remained benchmarks for listeners for many years. Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic was a most accomplished orchestra, renowned for its beauty of sound. This, for me, led to a sound a little too burnished, with everything well-blended. Schumann’s orchestration isn’t quite like that; it is quirky but colourful. With his own orchestra, Kubelik is able to capture much more of that, most notably in the woodwinds, here a little more forward and idiomatic. In general, tempi are a touch broader than in the 1964 recordings, but Kubelik’s performances were always lively, and there is no loss of tension. The Rhenish Symphony develops naturally – it feels right, unfolding superbly. The Fourth Symphony is perhaps the finest of the four, and requires a strong sense of architecture as well as real zest throughout.

Comparisons are very interesting in these works. Kubelik’s ‘Rhenish’ is superb, but in the Fourth Symphony, I would put Klemperer’s 1961 recording ahead of this one. Klemperer is swifter in the two middle movements, and the whole has the drive and fire of a performance that takes wink; and the lovely oboe melody in the second movement has a melancholy beauty I have never heard equalled. On the other hand, Klemperer’s later ‘Rhenish’, for all its incidental beauties, is unsuccessfully sluggish, except in the fourth movement. Of recent performances, John Eliot Gardner’s cycle on LSO Live, has much to commend it, and not only in superior sound. Generally noticeably swifter in tempo – very much so in the Fourth - and very exciting in parts, these performances capture all of the zest, but less of the poetry than Kubelik. A true lover of Schumann would want to hear, and love, both.

Michael Wilkinson

Previous review (original release): Rob Barnett

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