San Francisco Symphony – Michael Tilson Thomas conducts Robert Schumann’s Symphonies [SFS Media]

4 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 1851 version]

San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas

Recorded November 2015 and March, April & May 2016 in Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: January 2018
821936-0071-2 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 22 minutes



A number of recordings of Schumann’s Symphonies have featured orchestras matching the modest size of those used in the composer’s day. The use of a full ensemble adds stature to the music as Wolfgang Sawallisch has shown in his highly praised recording (Dresden and Philadelphia) but because Schumann’s orchestration has been criticised, a view is sometimes taken that smaller forces result in greater clarity. In an accompanying essay Michael Tilson Thomas concedes that performers sometimes “do something to make the music more transparent” but goes on to explain that his own approach includes moments when accompanying lines are reduced or a leading melody strengthened. This may seem to imply that the conductor is imposing his will on the music but in fact the melodic lines simply sound well-focussed and the ear is not aware of thinning-down the accompanying figures.

The broad and bold introduction to the ‘Spring’ Symphony at once demonstrates that the recorded sound is of exceptional quality. There is buoyancy about this music and Tilson Thomas does not seek to add further dramatic effect – indeed this is a plain reading with attention paid to the lighter moments as, for example, when the first Trio of the Scherzo skips away at a faster pace. It is to my loss that I find that the cheerful main theme of the Finale verges on triviality but the brisk performance sparkles and the quiet moments before the end are effectively mysterious.

Straightforwardness is also an advantage in Symphony No.2 and this conductor will have none of the irritating moments of relaxation for a few bars in the Scherzo that often detract. The outer movements are given with panache and the weighty scoring is clear in detail – timpani are exceptionally well-balanced, never clouding the lower lines and making much dramatic impact. The Adagio espressivo is played without much expression – this seems to be part of the overall conception.

The ‘Rhenish’ Symphony is not driven forward so firmly: soon after the opening, the second subject does not quite hold to the basic tempo and in all the movements there is a tendency to let the pulse drift with the mood of the music. The Scherzo ambles and it relaxes in tempo when the melodies become gentler. By contrast, the representation of Cologne Cathedral moves majestically and splendidly dark trombones. The Finale never quite shakes off the solemnity and trundles pleasantly along – charming in its way, after all Schumann is not making any dramatic points.

Symphony No.4 can come across as a truly great work but a criticism sometimes levelled against this revised version is the enriching of the score with additional wind instruments and these can hinder lucidity. The best conductors cope with this problem, however, as does Tilson Thomas, and his method of lightening the accompaniment is an advantage. There are traditional slow-down points in the first movement but they are not imposed here. The ‘Romanze’ is taken slowly but since it is brief, this approach assists the symphonic proportions. The Scherzo disappoints. As so often the Trio sags enormously; Schumann marked the movement Lebhaft (Lively) and adds no further instruction; therefore the Trio’s skipping rhythm should be a light-hearted dance but here it lumbers along carefully, ending slower still. The lead into the Finale is dramatic and from then on all is forceful. With this realistic recorded quality, the San Francisco Symphony in full cry makes a thrilling sound and the work ends in great excitement. Unfortunately the triumphant conclusion is spoilt because, as with all the Symphonies here, there is the infuriating inclusion of applause. Each of these performances was recorded over a number of days so we don’t even know which of them is being acclaimed.

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