Symphony No.1 in B flat, Op.38 (Spring)
Overture, Scherzo and Finale, Op.52
Symphony No.4 in D minor, Op.120 [1841 original version]
WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln
Recorded January & March 2012 in Philharmonie, Cologne
Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson
Reviewed: February 2014
CD No: AUDITE 97.677
Duration: 72 minutes
For years it has been the habit of writers to refer to Schumann’s alleged lack of skill in his use of the orchestra, and I suspect that most of it can be traced back to the series of books entitled Essays in Musical Analysis by Donald Francis Tovey, first published in 1935, in which the author gives an extremely subjective view. When analysing the ‘Spring’ Symphony he suggests that Mendelssohn when conducting did not interfere with “the incredible clumsiness of Schumann’s scoring”. Well I am sure Mendelssohn was far too intelligent a musician to do any such thing and indeed never intended to. A little later Tovey makes the most grudging concession by saying that “the First Symphony is not nearly as opaque as that of later works.”
I believe that these views, echoed frequently in later years by writers far less distinguished than Tovey, should be largely discounted and it strikes me that Heinz Holliger, by the nature of his conducting, implies a completely opposite view. The transparent nature of everything on this disc shows that it is possible to reveal the detail of Schumann’s music with the utmost clarity. Holliger’s approach might be described as chamber music on a large scale – perhaps not surprising since as an oboist of the utmost distinction (and a composer) he is a considerable chamber-music player.
The ‘Spring’ Symphony is here notable not just for its clarity but also for Holliger’s keen perception of the music’s structure. The slightly faster-than-usual first movement emerges from the introductory Andante un poco maestoso in a strikingly dramatic fashion and the forward impulse is admirable with no over-emphasis of the more tender moments. It is delightful to hear the quiet passage before the coda flowing along elegantly; all too frequently conductors allow this section to fall asleep. Although suitably gentle and atmospheric, the slow movement never has sentimentality thrust upon it and the bouncing scherzo is as light-footed as could be. Schumann wanted the finale to be both animated and gracious; Holliger obliges by being delicate but unhurried and even manages to allay my doubts about the primitive simplicity of the main theme – difficult to see how such a basic tune can lead to a grand finish but there the increase of pace works nicely.
I have long regarded the Overture, Scherzo and Finale as being a Symphony that happens not to have a slow movement. There are big symphonic gestures here, albeit with less regard for sonata form. Holliger is excellent at reserving power for the strongest outbursts. After a series of cheerful themes the ‘Overture’ only becomes serious about halfway through and a touch of speed rounds it off. In their different ways the ‘Scherzo’ and ‘Finale’ are rather more striking, the former achieving drama more gently and this performance reveals the subtle and complex nature of the woodwind parts. The greater force of the finale is splendidly conveyed and all the inner lines within the fugal writing are crisply defined.
Symphony No.4 brings us back to the question of orchestration. Tovey suggests that “this symphony is one of the few works in which Schumann has tried to set himself free” from the constraints of sonata form. This surely is not true. I see the problem as being the composer attempting to respect it and not quite managing it until the 1851 revision in which the structure is tightened and, in the outer movements, Schumann now marks repeats of the exposition sections. Holliger gives a really fine performance of Schumann’s first attempt. There is one element of the revision that Holliger uses, and rightly so. Whereas the original score has conventional pauses between the first three movements (confirmed in the Breitkopf und Härtel edition of around 1890), Holliger plays the movements with no gaps. Schumann’s sequences of keys clearly demand this and it is surprising that he waited until revising the music before so indicating.
My only complaint concerning the performance lies in the scherzo. Schumann wants it to be lively – very suitable for the trio section which sounds like a peasant dance with a light touch. Unfortunately Holliger fails to sustain the tempo – not by much, but enough to understate the rhythm. There is no harm in the relaxation at the end of the trio’s second appearance although Schumann’s long build-up to the start of the finale seems rather laborious compared with the revision and although the original shape of the subsequent main theme makes it charmingly optimistic, it lacks the element of triumph towards which the preceding long crescendo had seemed to be heading.
For all that, this impressive performance (played and recorded with excellence, as throughout) leaves in no doubt that Heinz Holliger is a conductor with a great understanding of Schumann. I look forward to the continuance of this Audite series and I foresee an exceptional reading of the revised version of No.4.