The immensely thorough booklet note clarifies the nature of both works very well and I am convinced by the writer’s summarizing theory that at the period in which they were presented, Schumann felt he did not need to attach programmatic descriptions. The Cello Concerto is certainly self-sufficient although it is very much a personalised example of structure. It follows the pattern of his Piano Concerto by using thematic material to connect the movements. A light touch is applied by both soloist and orchestra, ideal because the work is constructed from what is, in effect, a set of three fantasias.
The expressive first movement impresses through the charm of its themes and here there is no over-indulgence. It may seem a strange compliment to pay but Oren Shevlin’s plain but consistent tone appears to be a major factor in holding together a work which in other renditions I had found to be episodic. The lively finale is here made sunny. Shevlin’s undemonstrative approach may be intentional in order not to overstate Schumann’s modest conception.
The Fourth Symphony is given in its final version (Heinz Holliger has already recorded the original). Some writers, analysts and even composers (including Brahms) have expressed a preference for the earlier version but may have been influenced by the general thickness of sound that undermined certain interpretations. Later performances rarely show that defect and nowadays conductors seem well capable of elucidating all the important inner lines. Two recent recordings (by Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Robin Ticciati) were made by groups using the name Chamber Orchestra (although these are no smaller that those used by Schumann himself) but forty years ago Sawallisch recorded Symphony No.4 with the sizeable Staatskapelle Dresden and detail was no less clear. That recording above all gives the lie to suggestions that the revised version unduly thickened the scoring.
With Holliger, clarity never seems to be a problem. There is a freshness about his interpretation; the bright, athletic approach seems to accord with Schumann’s later intentions because when making the revision, he changed the tempo markings and in all but the slow movement he used the instruction Lebhaft (Lively).
Orchestration apart, the essence of Schumann’s revision is the tauter organisation of themes and increased respect for sonata form – it seems extraordinary that the 1841 version did not require repeats in the outer movements. Little melodic threads sometimes interrupted the progress of the earlier score and even the bold, simple theme which commences the finale became more straightforward in the revision.
This is a difficult area in interpretation, the link from scherzo to finale is more subtly crafted in the 1851 edition but not all conductors equal Holliger in making sense of the big introductory chords. The pattern is similar to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony at this moment but there is no point it imitating Beethovenian grandeur because with Schumann the chords are a simple, optimistic prelude to the long build to the Symphony’s triumphant ending. Holliger gets it just right – strong, but not over-emphatic.
Overall the essence of the romantic nature of the work is clearly illustrated without imposition. Once again I cannot let it pass when a conductor fails fully to retain the speed of the scherzo when the trio is reached but this time Holliger almost manages it – a shame about the slight loss of impulse but nevertheless the music still manages to retain its essential dance element.
There have been a number of excellent recent recordings of the Schumann Symphonies, providing different but no less valid views of the works: in the case of the 1851 version of Symphony No.4, Holliger provides something special.