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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No.3 in E-flat Op.97, ‘Rheinische Symphonie’ (Rhenish Symphony) (1850) [34:03]
Symphony No. 4 in d minor Op.120 (1841/1851) [31:13]
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Lawrence Foster
rec. live Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum, Prague, April 2008. DDD/DSD
Reviewed from lossless (wav) press access
PENTATONE PTC5186327 SACD [65:22]

Downloading offers a number of advantages, especially in the case of back catalogue. The CD that you were planning to buy may have been deleted, or ‘out of stock at the distributor’. It may be available from the Archive Service maintained by Chandos and Hyperion, or as one of the growing numbers of special CDs licensed from the original labels by Presto, and identical in every respect with the ‘real’ thing. Or it may be imprisoned in a whopper box that you can’t afford, or can’t find room for.

Downloading or streaming in good quality sound may be the best, or the only, answer. In this case, this Pentatone download from their website serves a dual purpose. We seem to have missed this and its predecessor, containing Symphonies Nos. 1 (‘Spring’) and 2 when they were released. I’ve included the earlier recording, with its evocation of Spring, in my round-up of music for Passiontide and Easter (PTC5186327). Reviewing this recording of Nos. 3 (‘Rhenish’) and 4 not only allows me to repair an omission, it also gives me an opportunity to note that Pentatone have just released these recordings of all four symphonies as a download-only set (PTC5186946, around £10 in lossless sound, no booklet).

I enjoyed that recording of the ‘Spring’ symphony; it’s light on its feet and a real evocation of the joys of the season. My only reservation was that the acoustic of the Rudolfinum is spacious, but at times thickens the textures. It’s not a major fault, however, and it didn’t put me off enjoying the album. As with the present recording, I listened to the 16-bit stereo download rather than the multi-channel SACD; it’s possible that the mix down from surround sound to stereo is the cause of the problem, which remains the case with the recordings of Nos. 3 and 4, though to a lesser extent.

If, like me, your first introduction to the ‘Rhenish’ on record was from George Szell’s Cleveland recording (Sony G010003907032I, Symphonies 1-4, budget-price download), most other performances sound a trifle tame. Punning on a then current ad for Shell petrol, one reviewer quipped ‘That’s Szell, that was’.

In every movement but one, Szell takes the music at a headlong pace, but it works. Foster offers a more placid view of the great river, as if remembering the line from Die Loreley: ‘und ruhig fließt der Rhein’. Many will prefer this gentler approach; not all orchestras are capable of what the Cleveland players achieved for Szell, and most other fine recordings adopt a more soothing stance. Thomas Dausgaard could have used the smaller scale of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra to push the tempo (BIS-1619 SACD, also Nos. 3 and 4, plus Manfred and Hermann und Dorothea Overtures – review), but he’s generally slightly more circumspect than Foster. The chamber orchestra does, however, allow him and the engineers (SACD or 24-bit) to shine with greater clarity than either Szell or Foster.

Where both Foster and Dausgaard adopt something like Szell’s tempo is in the finale, marked lebhaft or vivace depending on which notes you follow. In all three, this is a joyous conclusion to a performance well worth visiting. For all their different views on tempo, these three recordings offer enticing accounts of this wonderful symphony.

The two named symphonies, Nos. 1 and 3, have tended to overshadow the other two, but Foster and the Czech Phil make equally strong cases for the Second and Fourth, with lively performances of each. Once again, if you know Szell’s Fourth, it’s taken at a tempo that might well seem breakneck with any other orchestra. Foster and the CPO are more circumspect – this time rather more measured than Dausgaard, too – yet never allow us to lose sight of the inherent joy of life in this work, and rounded off with a lively but not hectic account of the finale. (Incidentally, Dausgaard also gives us the original 1841 version of the Fourth, with the Second, on BIS-1519 SACD).

When I reviewed the Dausgaard recording in April 2010, I had only mp3 to work from, for reasons which now escape me. The 24-bit stereo from (surround also available) lightens the textures even more, whereas the Pentatone tends to make Schumann’s scoring, often regarded as over-dense, a little more so than usual.

If you want something a little different in these symphonies, Dausgaard takes us some way towards that, but Sir John Eliot Gardiner with Orchestre Révolutionnère et Romantique takes us further (DG Archiv 4792515, 5 CDs, around £23 on CD – costing much more to download). Then, of course, there’s the evergreen Wolfgang Sawallisch set of all four symphonies and the Overture, Scherzo and Finale, on an inexpensive 2-CD set (Warner 2564607594, but again more expensive as a download, without booklet – review of earlier EMI release). If, however, you are happy with uncontroversial, if slightly unexciting performances, well recorded apart from the slightly difficult acoustic, Foster and the Czech Philharmonic will do nicely, either on separate SACDs or downloads, or on the new budget-price download of all four symphonies.

All the recordings mentioned make it seem so unpredictable that the composer of this life-enhancing music could, so soon after revising the Fourth, be so depressed as to try to drown himself in the river that he had celebrated so wonderfully, and be incarcerated for the rest of his short life as suffering from ‘psychotic melancholia’.

Brian Wilson

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