Our conductor, Sir Simon Rattle calls Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) the ‘echt Romantik’. I’ve always found him that way, especially in his four symphonies where a bigger canvas than his piano scores usually gets his Florestan in gear over his Eusebius.1
Even in the slower movements of the symphonies, there is a restlessness that I think Schumann is enjoying. A little like feeling sorry for yourself — for him, maybe over his wife’s long time affection for his buddy Brahms or the straight out melancholia from which he suffered most of his adult life? In any case, within the four symphonies, you’ll hear the great man at his very finest. Elegant symphonies, beautifully structured in the very best Romantic symphonic tradition.
Many conductors took a hatchet to Scuhmann’s orchestrations and reengineered them to ‘better effect’. Hogwash. Even Mahler had a go. He should have known better. I think there’s a recording of it around somewhere. Rattle goes back to the very beginnings of the symphonies as he explains in an interview included in the set. The man is a thoughtful scholar and had me thinking of Schumann anew, especially concerning the origins of the 4th Symphony. For those of you attuned to Schumann’s own version of this symphony, Rattle’s use of the original will be a shock to your ears, especially in the last movement. It’s wonderful in both conception and performance.
For all Rattle’s chat about Schumann embodying a true Romantic, he certainly pares down the varnish on the old scores. The Berliner Philharmoniker has owned these symphonies on record, with fantastic cycles by Kubelik and Karajan, both utterly different than the Rattle vision.
I love Rattle’s way with the music. It’s obvious that the playing is first class and because of Rattle’s musical growth with the orchestra, some very lovely things happen. Lots of wonderful rubato and gorgeous balances. Kubelik and Karajan (especially) give you big boned, ‘I’m Robert Schumann, for the love of God’. In your face virtuosity with big band sound. Rattle gives you the symphonies as heard by their original conductor, Mendelssohn. With the string section down in number, the winds and timpani lines are heard clearly, helped by the superb recording from live performances at the Philharmonie.
If you’ve loved the larger than life Schumann, you won’t feel short changed here. The playing is superlative and the production values first class. I’d say a triumph for the very first release on the new Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings label.
And, for the audiophiles among us, I caught this on the website: ‘A limited vinyl collector’s edition is in preparation.’
Sir Simon Rattle
Symphony No. 1 in B flat major, op. 38 »Spring«
Symphony No. 4 in D minor, first version from 1841
Symphony No. 2 in C major op. 61
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major op. 97 »Rhenish«
Recorded live at the Berlin Philharmonie in February and November 2013