The booklet notes for this Heinz Holliger series make the point that Schumann’s skill as an orchestrator has long been misunderstood and unfairly criticised. It is very interesting that the essay accompanying the recent recordings of the Symphonies by Yannick Nézet-Séguin makes the same very valid point. It has seemed that, with a few rare exceptions, past documented performances have failed to do justice to Schumann’s skill regarding instrumentation. Recent versions seem to be changing this, something very welcome. Comparison between Holliger and Nézet-Séguin is relevant as the view of the two conductors is fascinatingly similar. I enjoy the WDR Orchestra’s fullness of sound which is enhanced by the suitably resonant Cologne Philharmonie and this rich acoustic never detracts from internal clarity.
Symphony No.2 is firmly driven – no leaning on dramatic moments but with much attention to detail; for example it is rare to hear so clearly the echoing sets of repeated notes shared between woodwinds and timpani around nine minutes into the first movement. In the scherzo there is none of the once-common habit of relaxing for Schumann’s occasional gentle ‘throwaway’ phrases and the two trios are driven firmly forward so that their irregular rhythms make a strong impact. I like the way that Holliger has the Adagio espressivo always moving on – rather more mobile than Nézet-Séguin although the latter is swifter in the finale and effectively so.
The essence of the ‘Rhenish’ Symphony is its grandeur. The secret of a successful reading is to achieve this element while displaying the immense amount of detail. The outer movements are full of switches of colouring. Typically Schumann will familiarise the listener with an important theme and then assert it using different instrumentation – perhaps using an outburst from the horns or maybe employing string-supported lower woodwinds. Sometimes the change of mood is achieved through adding the darkening timbre of clarinets and this often serves to intensify the general seriousness of much of the material.
Holliger is attentive to all these aspects in a way rarely encountered in recordings since the remarkable 1970s’ set of Schumann’s Symphonies recorded by Wolfgang Sawallisch with Staatskapelle Dresden. Holliger uses more strings than does Nézet-Séguin (with Chamber Orchestra of Europe) but everything remains clearly defined. Holliger’s larger orchestra does have a slight advantage when it comes to the dignified fourth movement – inspired by Schumann’s viewing Cologne Cathedral; to record the music with in this city is surely a big step towards authenticity. In all, the work is given more weight than others in this series – and appropriately so – there is always the risk of the finale sounding lightly cheerful unless, as here, an element of weightiness is applied.
The recorded sound is warm, lucid and realistic. There is more to come in this series and I look forward to it.