Relatively speaking, Robert Schumanns five symphonies (there are two versions of the D minor) are quite rare visitors to the concert hall. Yet they have done remarkably well on record. There are numerous superb recordings, yet its been easy in the last three decades to nominate Wolfgang Sawallischs Staatskapelle Dresden set on EMI as the best library choice; these lucid performances have become classics.
Dangerous then, maybe, to have another go at these wonderful works. Sawallisch, of course, has now lived further with this music; and, anyway, these re-makes are not with one of the European bands that might be overly-familiar with this repertoire, but with one of the great American ensembles they maybe play Schumann less often specifically, the orchestra Sawallisch steered through the nineties as Music Director.
Let me say straight away that this Philadelphia set, recorded live, documents exceptional performances. The only real doubt is over the sound, which emanates from the Orchestras new home. As recorded, some passages are occluded and bass-light. On the flip side, there is no lack of clarity, impact and presence. The strings are a bit thin-sounding, yet this is no bad thing in Schumann. Maybe certain frequencies are not sympathetically rendered in this hall (at the time of recording). And I take some comfort in a recent news report (this review being written in early December 2003) that the Verizon Halls auditorium is undergoing some acoustic refurbishment. My opinion on the sound, then, may not be alone, and, in any case, my reaction to it has been divergent while listening to the whole set. I think restricted is the best word to use, and then only for some of the time. At least theres no messy resonance. Of course, for most of the time ones concentration is on the music this glorious symphony cycle from one of its greatest interpreters, Wolfgang Sawallisch.
Put simply, Sawallisch is a master of this music. Rarely, if ever, does he put a foot wrong tempo, articulation and balance has a sense of definitiveness that leaves one spellbound by these scores, and dumbfounded that there are criticisms about Schumanns orchestrations. The sheer nimbleness, unanimity and character, and trust, of the Philadelphia Orchestra makes nonsense of such claims; Sawallisch clarifies and directs the whole with a sureness that, once again, confirms his uncanny kinship with Schumanns music.
The bald sound, in many ways, is not at odds with Sawallischs non-bolstered, unexaggerated sifting of Schumanns textures and what love and passion he brings to this music. Rhythmic buoyancy and winsome phrasing informs these renditions, so too a tangible liveliness, and a sense of occasion and real fire in the great Second Symphony, fluidity in the Rhenish (no pun intended), expectation and playfulness in the Spring, and transparency and eagerness in the Fourth, not as heavy as it can be made to seem; Sawallisch, although he plays the 1851 revision, is truer to the original 1841 conception, and now observes the finale repeat that was omitted in Dresden.
The symphonies occupy the first two CDs. The final one is something of a miscellany. After a splendid version of the Manfred overture, its good to have the rarely played Violin Concerto, a late work of fascinating personality, dictated on the verge of the composers final insanity. Leonidas Kavakos responds well to the nervous intensity of the piece, and he doesnt try to hide either its difficulty or awkwardness; his is a rendition of poise and expressive warmth, beautifully accompanied; the slow movements opening is very touching, the closing polonaise ideally shaped at a spacious tempo.
Thomas Hampsons assumption of the five very pleasing Clara Schumann songs is a little inflated at times, occasionally at odds with Sawallischs discreet accompaniment, albeit the singer is generous with Claras melodies and apolitical in stance: he sings vividly left to right! The oddly scored Andante and Variations receives an agile and congenial rendition that gives full vent to Schumanns imagination. Mr Miller and Mr Smith are long-standing members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, both having joined in the 1960s.
All in all, a handsome set, available direct from the Orchestra. As I have indicated, Sawallisch has a deeply satisfying way with Schumanns symphonies.