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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
The Four Symphonies

Symphony No. 1 Spring (1841) [30.40]
Symphony No. 2 (1846) [34.38]
Symphony No. 3 Rhenish (1850) [31.51]
Symphony No. 4 (1841 rev. 1851) [29.27]
Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim
rec. 12-14 March 2003, Studio 1 NLG, Berlin. DDD
TELDEC CLASSICS 2564 61179-2 [72.39+67.14]

Going by timings alone this is Barenboim at the slower extremes of the tempo range. That said, the ear perceives an approach that is flexible and instinct with teeming life. For the most part there is little drowsy about this set. Quite how this can be I am not sure but the fact that the audio image is one of the most realistic and vigorous I have come across must help. The sound is vivid without the appearance of spotlighting; natural without blandness. This is a tribute to producer Martin Sauer and engineer Tobias Lehmann.

Of course the French horns are ‘make or break’ in these symphonies and they register here as if they were underpinned with Wagner tubas such is their lustrous golden roar (listen at 4.30 tr.1, 0.48, 2.20 tr.5 The Rhenish). This makes me want to hear Barenboim in Bruckner 4 and 8 with the same orchestra. In the Third there is both exhilaration and mercurial flight. Try the finale (tr. 5 1.38; 2.50). The counter-voices float freely from textures that can, in other hands, seem muddied and opaque. Not all is perfection, however. There is a bass emphasis that unnaturally favours the pounding drums in the Third. It is a shame that it wasn’t toned down a shade. Then again you get wonderfully calculated and stable warm diminuendos as at the end of the fourth movement. The galloping accelerations in the final pages of the Third and First Symphonies are breathtakingly exciting as they are also in the finale of the Fourth at 9.02.

The Rhenish and the Fourth Symphony share similar qualities; solo ‘voices’ are captured with admirable definition in the quieter moments. As with the Third Symphony the grand drama is projected as a Beethovenian conflagration shuddering to volcanic proportions in the finale (1.30 tr. 9) and veering into the territory occupied by Beethoven’s Seventh in its stamping rhythmic sovereignty (8.52 tr. 9 CD2). In the First Symphony things can turn ponderous as they do in the Scherzo which is marked molto vivace. If you like the accentuated and emphatic you will love this; if not you might find it disorientating. There are some delicious things here including the carefree flute decoration emerging from the calls of ‘waldweben’ French horns at 5.52 tr. 4 CD1. It is presumably Barenboim’s awe-struck groans that can be heard at 8.50 in the finale of the First and at 8.01 in the regal finale of the Second. Nothing to worry about and these are certainly not the sort of whooping guffaws you hear from Beecham in his live recording of the Sibelius Second Symphony (EMI Classics nla). The Barenboim treatment of the Second Symphony is of a piece with the other symphonies. In his hands the work finds a Beethovenian storminess and when the writing turns to idylls it is the affable pictorialism of the Pastoral that comes to mind. Accelerations and decelerations, dynamic changes made on the instant, changing from moment to moment pepper the delicate second movement of the Second making us think of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. Wonderful silvery contrapuntal effects flow and surge in the finale; the violins are divided right and left (1.02).

There are plenty of alternative cycles. I have compared this set with the series by Kubelik (both Sony and DG-Eloquence) and Marriner (Capriccio and Brilliant). Kubelik on Sony offers playing that is affable, good mannered, modestly unassuming and well recorded. The performances are warm and rich, possibly a little laid-back; as much to do with the South German temperament as with Kubelik's perspective on Schumann. His Rhenish is grandly Brahmsian, stately in the Sehr mäßig and his French Horns roll and halloo as if through a mist of golden wine. Kubelik's early 1960s recordings with the Berlin Phil have yet greater vitality but the sound does not have the depth and breadth of colour found in the Sony or the Teldec. There is also the Marriner set with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (Brilliant Classics but originally Capriccio) although his lickety-split élan gives the symphonies a decidedly Mendelssohn-like flight.

If you seek even more fire in the belly then try Solti (Decca), Hans Vonk (EMI Red Line) or Sawallisch (EMI). I have heard parts of the Solti and Sawallisch sets in the past but must still go by favourable reports on the Vonk. Franz Konwitschny is also highly recommendable on Edel-Berlin Classics unless you have non-negotiable objections to mono.

I note that Daniel Barenboim is now billed simply as ‘Barenboim’ on the cover and rear card. Still at least we are spared the self-absorbed portraits with which Karajan used to adorn his DG LPs. And Barenboim does turn in a remarkable set which, apart from some misgivings about doctrinaire extremes of tempo in the First, is uniformly the stuff of which rediscovered joys are made.

Rob Barnett

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