Barenboim Schumann The Four Symphonies

0 of 5 stars

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 Version]

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim

Recorded 12-14 March 2003 in Studio No.1, NLG GmbH, Berlin

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: February 2004
2564 61179-2 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 20 minutes

There have been many fine recordings of the Schumann Symphonies including George Szell/Cleveland (Sony), Rafael Kubelik/Berlin (DG) and Wolfgang Sawallisch’s two cycles (both reviewed on this site) from Dresden (EMI) and Philadelphia (an own-label release). And Daniel Barenboim himself recorded them in Chicago nearly a quarter of a century ago for DG. All these orchestras have better name-recognition than Staatskapelle Berlin – but this new set has special virtues.

Barenboim has now been General Music Director of Staatskapelle Berlin since 1992 and its Conductor for Life since 2003. In this age of serial relationships how often does one find an established conductor making a lifetime commitment to an orchestra, particularly to a less than glamorous band and especially when he is already Music Director of the Chicago Symphony. In fact, Barenboim has recently announced his intention not to renew his Chicago contract. All of this seems to indicate a rather special relationship with his Berlin band, or could it be that recording costs in the States are now so prohibitive as to lead to a flight of conductors?

Whatever the truth, in its slightly old-fashioned way – dark-hued strings and weighty brass – Staatskapelle Berlin intuitively find the right soundworld for Schumann. Add into the equation Barenboim’s own feelings for Schumann for a set of exceptional interest. To get a couple of negatives out the way first, neither of them especially serious: the less than unanimous opening chord of the Rhenish might have been retaken, and balances tend to favour the strings and timpani at the expense of the woodwind.

In symphonies 1 and 4 Barenboim’s ultra-flexible approach, whilst no mere carbon-copy of his idol, Furtwängler, does recall his main characteristics – massive and exploratory in the introductions to both works, expansive and fully characterised in the allegros. From Barenboim’s moulded phrasing of the second subject of the Spring’s first movement, one senses the hand of a master pianist. In particular, inner string parts, throughout, are satisfyingly voiced. The timpani are very present.

The Rhenish receives a performance that seems to encapsulate Barenboim’s many virtues. The opening Vivace hits exactly the right tempo, fast but not so fast as to get in the way of clear articulation – it is given with exhilarating lift, the great horn call underpinned and propelled forward by immediate timpani. The so-called scherzo, which follows – barges on the Rhine – is leisurely, and the third movement Moderato recalls the delicate world of the Piano Concerto’s slow movement. In the Maestoso, the solemn procession in Cologne cathedral, the dark, echt-Germanic trombone section comes into its own, whilst the finale’s Vivace marking is rightly taken as an indication of character rather than speed. The symphony culminates in what can best be described as a blaze of patient rejoicing.

If the Second Symphony is marginally less satisfying – the (antiphonal) violins making slightly heavy weather of the scherzo – there are compensating virtues, the spirituality of the work’s opening and a particularly satisfying conclusion, which can all too easily sound bombastic, and which here ends on a note of radiant conviction.

It would be idle to pretend that some other versions are not better played, but there is much here that is remarkably convincing. In a world where many recordings get made for no very perceptible reason it is refreshing to find one that is clearly a labour of love for all concerned.

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