The matter of Schumann’s orchestration has sometimes troubled writers; some are very critical, probably none more so than Sir Donald Tovey in his Essays in Musical Analysis. Of Schumann’s Symphonies he seems happy only with No.1 (Spring), albeit grudgingly, when he writes: “the First Symphony is not nearly as opaque as that of later works.” I sometimes wonder if commentators have unthinkingly followed such ideas when offering similar opinions; certainly I find it difficult to appreciate such an extreme point of view.
Because of the fullness of the orchestration however, care must be taken to clarify the inner parts of these work, and many conductors seem able to do so. Recently Heinz Holliger, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Robin Ticciati have recorded the Symphonies and obtained lucid and detailed accounts. They do have in common the co-operation of orchestras using fewer strings than usual but that is not the whole story and if we return to the magnificent Dresden Staatskapelle recordings under Wolfgang Sawallisch, the splendour of a large orchestra yet the instrumentation is as clear as could be.
Antonio Pappano’s approach resembles the Sawallisch school of thought. The Santa Cecilia Orchestra provides a big, bold sound and is at-one with Pappano in his powerful view of these grand works of the Romantic period. His measured reading of the lengthy slow introduction to Symphony 2 is a portent of weighty things to come. In the Allegro however weightiness does not mean slowness; this is a commanding reading and the Scherzo is notable for its intensity and accuracy. Having driven the music firmly thus far, Pappano’s lugubrious approach to the Adagio comes as something of a surprise. There is opulence but at this tempo the music seems interminable; Pappano takes three minutes longer than does Holliger and two more than Nézet-Séguin. The Finale is also broad, but the sense of drive has returned; in fact the fanfare-like opening, enhanced by the resonant quality of the venue, indicates that something exciting is about to happen – and indeed it does with fiery playing, but what a shame that the immensely authoritative ending should have been followed so immediately by applause.
The Fourth Symphony is given in Schumann’s excellent 1851 revision of the less-well-constructed 1841 original. Orchestration complaints aside, with conductors who understand the composer and use the riches of a modern orchestra – Furtwängler and Sawallisch in particular – the music can achieve colourful magnificence. Pappano presents the Symphony on a similarly imposing scale. I like the general breadth of the first movement but the sudden speed-up at letter K in the Breitkopf & Härtel publication is a little unnerving and has no printed justification. It is common to increase the speed for the coda but other conductors do it more subtly.
There can be no complaint about the fairly spacious speed taken for the ensuing ‘Romanze’ but, in the Scherzo, sadly the worn-out old trick of playing the Trio much slower spoils the third movement. Schumann puts Lebhaft (Lively) at the start and does not give any further indication of tempo and here the middle section is anything but. Many conductors do likewise and I can recall only Holliger retaining momentum and even he does not quite sustain the pace. Nevertheless, Pappano does make the dramatic link to the Finale gripping and the movement itself is boldly drawn. Interestingly the 1841 version had no repeats marked in the outer movements but in 1851 Schumann added them. It is unthinkable not to make this reiteration in the first movement but when, as here, the da capo is omitted from the Finale, the structure is not spoilt.
Much speed is evident and a sense of triumph ends the work but the feeling of elation is again dampened because applause has been retained. These are live performances and shuffling sounds are acceptable but in the context of a recording, clapping at the end is irrelevant, even with loud finishes. However, the music-making is often notable and the sound is vivid.