Symphony No.1 in B flat, Op.38 (Spring)
Symphony No.2 in C, Op.61
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Op.97 (Rhenish)
Symphony No.4 in D minor, Op.120 [revised 1851 version]
Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Recorded November 2012 at Cité de la Musique, Paris
CD No: DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 479 2437 (2 CDs) Duration: 2 hours 4 minutes Reviewed: April 2014
Robert Schumann – The Symphonies – Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Yannick Nézet-Séguin [Deutsche Grammophon]
Reviewed by Antony Hodgson
High hopes were raised that these might be notable performances of Robert Schumann’s Four Symphonies when Yannick Nézet-Séguin is quoted in the booklet strongly opposing some musicians’ comments about the composer’s “supposed lack of skill as an orchestrator.” He goes on to suggest that this might have something to do with the danger of the brass, particularly the trumpets in an orchestra, overpowering the other instruments. He explains that this is easily avoided saying “... bite and attack and cleanness are so important. With the modern trumpets that we used, instead of just playing less, they had to play in a certain way, with more attack and more decay to the sound. It was fascinating – we didn't have to ask the strings to beef it up or ask anyone to play softer.”
Nézet-Séguin certainly adheres to this principle throughout these performances and the clarity within the many tutti passages is everywhere remarkable without ever diminishing the power of this colourful music. The very beginning of the ‘Spring’ Symphony typifies the view that Nézet-Séguin takes of the music – the introduction is very broad and dramatic but within the context of clear textures and strong rhythm. By contrast, the succeeding Allegro molto vivace is unusually rapid – the season getting off to a very lively start necessitating a certain amount of gentle caressing of subsidiary themes without impeding forward progress, nor does the conductor need to over-emphasise the relaxed passage in the coda – a stumbling block for some interpreters. Sensitive shaping informs the Larghetto, here portrayed as the eager romance of youth but without sentimentality. This makes it a suitable prelude to the vigour of the scherzo, not rapid but dance-like, with the two trios swept along with matching vitality despite Schumann’s unusual breaking of the rhythm within these sections. Nézet-Séguin’s light touch does somewhat underline the naïveté of the main theme of the finale but he does his best to make it meaningful and I can forgive his quirky leaning on one of the recurrent phrase-endings The development is made sufficiently dramatic to remind the listener that this is serious Symphonic music after all. The relaxed central passage with its quaint horn and woodwind solos has great charm.
Symphony No.2 is interpreted in weightier fashion. The long introduction – again taken very broadly – evokes a sense of calm which makes the highly dramatic link to the Allegro ma non troppo all the more effective. Nézet-Séguin does not concern himself greatly with the ‘non troppo’ aspect but balance and overall impact are well judged. The same bright characteristic is applied to the scherzo although the resonant acoustic makes it a little difficult to hear absolute definition in the rushing strings; nevertheless this is very skilled playing and the conductor does not lean on Schumann’s ‘throwaway’ phrases as is sometimes done. The Adagio espressivo brings Mendelssohn to mind, perhaps it is the combination of vivid scherzo followed by a calm slow movement being a close parallel to the effect obtained in that composer’s ‘Scottish’ Symphony. Schumann’s finale does not however parallel that contemporary composer’s steady triumphalism and Nézet-Séguin’s driven performance is more a reminder of the fierce final stretches of a Beethoven Symphony.
How different is the ‘Rhenish’ and in this interpretation the solemnity of the inner movements is significant to the whole reading. Nézet-Séguin is no longer concerned with spring-like dash but I do like the optimistic thrust of the opening – a very appropriate way of presenting it and it gives an exciting entry into the drama of this usually-structured work. Some past notable recordings, for example those by Sawallisch and Swarowsky, took a similar view. The second movement is given with a slow, peasant-like lilt. The central one gives a freedom of approach, always provided that it is not rapid. ‘Nicht schnell’ said Schumann; Nézet-Séguin takes a calm and flowing approach – a suitable lead-into to the grand music which follows inspired by Cologne Cathedral. The relatively modest forces of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe are not a hindrance here and there is some admirably full-toned brass. The varied elements of the preceding movements are rounded off by a bright reading of the finale – swift enough to be joyful, weighty where required and very fiery at its close.
Nézet-Séguin is convinced by Schumann’s decision to revise the D minor Symphony (the second of the four to be composed but published as No.4): “I try to respect whenever a composer makes a revision because he feels he needs to, rather than because of any outside pressure.” There is something about this 1851 version that implies splendour, and a spacious approach, using a full symphony orchestra, taken by such conductors as Furtwängler and Sawallisch, is very inspiring. Because of the consistency of Nézet-Séguin’s view, his ensemble (strings numbering 9, 9, 6, 5, 4) is no less effective. Perhaps the biggest contrast with those interpretations which stress majesty lies in the first movement. At 10’20” Nézet-Séguin is very swift – compare Furtwängler who takes 11’45” (his measured tread is nobly impressive however). Nevertheless the COE plays with flair and its incisive phrasing makes this a driving and dramatic performance. I have sometimes been unimpressed by the way in which conductors cope with the start of the finale where a long tense build-up springs into life. A parallel with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony comes to mind but Schumann is surely not attempting any such regal magnificence and any attempt to overstress this moment can end up sounding like poor-man’s Beethoven. Nézet-Séguin sweeps into the music, making the three chords simply a firm announcement incorporated within the finale’s flowing conception – this means that their reappearance at the rarely-observed repeat is logical because, by avoiding emphasis, the current of the music continues.
So mostly this is a successful Symphony 4 but I cannot go along with the reading of the scherzo. Schumann simply asks for it to be lively (Lebhaft) and this continues to apply in the trio where Schumann gives no indication for a change of tempo – ideally given with a slight leaning on the strong beats. Here a suitable initial tempo is chosen but the trio section is a disaster! How disappointing that Nézet-Séguin imposes a huge reduction of tempo so that it almost becomes an interpolated slow movement. For the first and only time within these readings I question the conductor’s approach to structure, yet this is a musician who, has a keen understanding of a composer’s approach to that aspect; also he is very thorough in observing repeats – an important part of the configuration of Schumann’s Symphonies.
These are challenging renditions. Throughout there are moments which throw a new and clearer light on the music. The unexpected catastrophe in the Fourth Symphony aside, the contours of these compositions are elucidated in a way rarely evident in other recordings. A few passages are perhaps understated but I think it more likely that the clear if slightly distant recording may have something to do with it. In general however I like the way in which these live performances have been engineered and it is refreshing that applause has been removed, as needs to be the case in all concert recordings. These are four great Symphonies.