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Robert Schumann
Symphonies No. 1 in B flat, Op. 38 ("Spring"); No. 2 in C, Op. 61; No. 3 in E flat, Op. 97 ("Rhenish"); No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120 (revised version of 1851)
Yannick Nezet-Sequin conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Review By Max Westler

 

  When it comes to the Schumann symphonies, there have always been differences of opinion among critics and conductors. Most critics have long contended that the Schumann's four symphonies are awkwardly constructed, poorly orchestrated, superficial, and in every way inferior to his early compositions for solo piano. The consensus was best summarized by one critic thusly: "Schumann never thought in terms of the orchestra and so his scoring is a matter of conservative routine, much of his material is equally suitable (or not) for various instruments rather than being suited to any in particular, he lacked the instinct to distribute his musical materials in places where they would best contribute to the overall impression, his tone is monotonous and consistently dull, he fails to balance melodic and harmonic elements, and he thickens the lower register with double-stopping (having strings play more than one string at a time) and by doubling the string parts with horns and winds. Schumann tended to treat the winds (pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons) as a united family whose members rarely venture out on their own, and that his use of four horns, occasionally doubled by trombones, needlessly clutters up the sonic balance."

Meanwhile conductors--and we're talking major conductors here--have blithely ignored the aforementioned criticism and recorded performances of unsurpassed beauty and excitement that suggest that these symphonies, if not quite the equal of Beethoven or Brahms, are masterpieces well deserving of an honored place in the standard repertory--and critics be damned! In the stereo era, Leonard Bernstein, George Szell, Wolfgang Sawallish, Otto Klemperer, Rafael Kubelik and Herbert Von Karajan produced sets of the complete symphonies brimming with intensity and conviction. Though each of these represented a very different interpretive point-of-view, they all shared a love of the music, a rock-solid belief in its importance and stature.

But lately there's been another argument brewing between the conductors themselves. And this time it concerns the size of the orchestra. Bernstein and Szell employed full-size orchestras for their recordings. But research suggests that Schumann was writing for an orchestra of roughly fifty players, not the ninety or more of the Cleveland Orchestra or New York Philharmonic. And so the recent trend has been to record the symphonies with chamber ensembles (with or without the original instrumentation). As I recall Roy Goodman and the Hanover Band were the first to release a set of Schumann "light," and that was maybe ten years ago. But recently chamber-sized versions of the symphonies have been the rule and not the exception: David Zinman's set with the Zurich Tonhalle and Thomas Dausgaard's with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra being two very recent and successful) examples.

And now along comes young YannickNezet-Sequin, the recently appointed music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, with a new set employing not just any chamber orchestra, but the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, one of the truly great orchestras of its kind on the planet. I have to admit it took me some time to adjust to these recordings, and this turned out to be entirely my fault and not Nezet-Sequin's. I was reared on Szell, Bernstein, and Sawallish, and I still prefer the grandeur of a full orchestra in this music. At first Nezet-Sequin seemed too light, brusque, and fleet: a cleansing, anti-Romantic approach that bordered on the superficial. But the more I listened, the more these performances made sense. Yes indeed, the tempos are bracing, but Nezet-Sequin isn't inflexible. There's a sense of light and shade, of dramatic contrast. If the allegros are characterized by well-sprung rhythms, the slow movements are gorgeously phrased, ardent, and full of song. Yes, the orchestral sound is lean, but there's also a transparency that reveals a wealth of detail often masked in other recordings. Clearly, for Nezet-Sequin, Schumann is the link that connects Mendelssohn to Brahms. If these performances sometimes lack warmth and inwardness, their energy and spontaneity hold true to the young composer who sketched out the "Spring" symphony in four days and trusted to "the inspiration of rapid thoughts" because these seemed more authentic, more "natural" than "lengthy deliberation." It goes without saying that the Chamber Orchestra of Europe gives their young conductor everything he's asking for. Their playing is charged, but also graceful and flowing. And the engineering is also top-notch; those inner voices register with luminous clarity.

Though I was very happy to have heard these very enjoyable and engaging performances, my heart still belongs to Lenny. As I said in my review of his DVD of all four symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic:

Recently there have been a spate of original instrument, chamber-sized performances of these symphonies But God love Lenny, he's having none of it. For him Schumann is the very apotheosis of Romanticism. In fact, "Schumann and the Romantic Movement" was a theme for one of Bernstein's first seasons with the Philharmonic. Certainly no conductor has made more effective and expressive use of Schumann's much maligned orchestration. Before Bernstein's 1960 recordings of the symphonies, critics routinely disparaged Schumann's orchestration as being too thick to permit details to emerge clearly. Yet that's exactly what Bernstein is able to do. He's not afraid to produce a big sound -- massive, forceful, and luminous -- that is at once transparent and richly detailed (no small thanks to the playing of the orchestra). Bernstein's interpretive stance is intuitive, improvisational, and (above all) passionate, but it is also informed by a lifetime of study and dedication to the music. There is no shortage of bracing energy and youthful exuberance; but as fast as Bernstein plays the music in places, it never sounds hard-driven or mannered. There is also graciousness and warmth. As one would expect, Bernstein is able to represent the many shifting moods and surprising changes that give these works their boldness and individuality, but he also shapes the music in an altogether natural way.

Those who want the Schumann symphonies in a chamber setting will certainly enjoy Nezet-Sequin, though both Zinman and Dausgaard (and Roy Goodman) have much to offer too. In the end, I can't see how you can limit yourself to just one recording of these works; but I'd definitely start with the Bernstein/Vienna Philharmonic performances on DG. You won't be disappointed.

 

 

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