Robert Schumann – The Symphonies – Berliner Philharmoniker/Simon Rattle [Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings]

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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 [original 1841 version]

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Recorded February, October and November 2013 in Philharmonie, Berlin

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: September 2014
(2 CDs + Blu-Ray Disc)
Duration: 2 hours 5 minutes (CDs)

Between us, myself and Antony Hodgson have had the pleasure of writing about recent recordings of Robert Schumann’s four Symphonies (five counting the two versions of No.4) in the last few months – whether conducted by Heinz Holliger, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Robin Ticciati or Kenneth Woods, the latter coupling music by Hans Gál. Promoters have ensured that Schumann’s wonderful Symphonies are unfairly neglected in our concert-halls, but fortunately record companies have solicited new versions consistently over the decades and especially right now.

I wouldn’t want to be without Holliger and Woods, in particular, and Nézet-Séguin and Ticciati have also staked a must-listen-again claim. There are many riches here, to add to (say) Bernstein, Celibidache, Kubelík and Sawallisch – the latter’s Dresden set (rather than his Philadelphia re-make) still probably the library choice for this superb music – and that is not by any means the full story of these pieces in recorded terms.

In steps Simon Rattle for another Schumann collection – and it must be said that this music easily bears repetition, both in itself and because of the variety of approaches that conductors convincingly find in these scores. Rattle’s is full of good and interesting things and also invites close and return listening. Resplendently recorded, each detail and dynamic registers, yet naturally.

The performances themselves, wonderfully well played, with much character and unanimity, have been painstakingly studied and prepared (too much?), the Berliners’ set opening with a vivid ‘Spring’ Symphony, as subtle as it is animated as it is richly sounded, the latter quality especially so in Rattle’s generous way with the slow movement (although 5’34” brings a suspicious edit). The scherzo enjoys gutsy attack from the lower strings, but there is also an urbanity present that charms, and the two trios are vibrantly characterised. Although the finale can be more impish than this, Rattle introduces an accelerando at the end of the repeated exposition (not first time round) that not only surprises but which also dovetails neatly into what follows. The first CD also includes the original Symphony No.4, more concentrated (Schumann omits outer-movement repeats) and quirkier than the ten-year-later revision. Rattle mines the score for detail (of which there is much) and lyrical warmth while investing an impulse that reveals Schumann’s febrile imagination. Not everybody will care for the ritardandos that Rattle introduces into the scherzo proper or, then, the under-tempo (snoozing) trio – I don’t – but such heavy weather isn’t typical of Rattle’s approach (the finale flies by and is blazed towards), and it is indicative of how yielding Schumann’s music can be.

The second CD consists of the great Second Symphony and the delicious ‘Rhenish’. Size of orchestra, and the misnomer that Schumann couldn’t orchestrate, are often discussed. Well, Rattle seems to have a full-strength Berlin Phil at his disposal (although the Philharmonie is quite reverberant anyway and may give a somewhat false picture of the number of personnel used – the booklet annotation simply presents the orchestra’s entire membership, so that’s no help), certainly larger (and louder) than when he conducted the LSO in this very work in June, an intimate, damped-down affair that was quite remarkable. The Berlin version is powerful, if lucid, quite exciting at times, if in a bullish way, although the scherzo is pointed and nimble and enjoys light and shade if slightly less intervention (from the antiphonally-placed second violins) than he brought to London, and the coda seems rather more macho. The first trio yearns too much and becomes sticky. The slow movement is wonderful and exquisite, however – what remarkable (proto-Tristan) music this is – and the finale stalks the listener with an unstoppable energy that leads to a triumphant apotheosis, although, and not only here, the timpani thwacks are more like cannon shots. The ‘Rhenish’ Symphony proves to be the glory of the set. The first movement (powerfully played if with textural daylight) is exuberant – golden horns and gleaming trumpets – without being pushed; there is real joy here. But the next movement, something of an entr’acte, is recorded rather closely to prevent really quiet playing (and the final pizzicatos seem to belong to another take). The slow central movement is easefully phrased and lovingly coloured, then the Cologne Cathedral movement balances sombreness and awe, and the finale is a dancing delight.

The rather airless recording, initially impressive, can become wearing, and the release’s packaging is distinctive if a little cumbersome; it will overhang conventional CD shelving easily! As well as essays on the music, and the compact discs, the well where they are to be found also houses a Blu-Ray disc with the Symphonies “in pure audio 24-Bit/96KHZ and High Definition video”. Card interleaves separate the discs to help protect the playing sides, but it is all a bit fiddly. Overall, the Berliners’ charisma and Rattle’s interpretative searching (however reacted to) is a further celebration of Robert Schumann’s magnificent music and the gramophone’s loyalty to it. Next please!

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