Schumann Symphonies 2 & 4 – The Mahler Arrangements

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Schumann arr. Mahler
Symphony No.2 in C, Op.61
Symphony No.4 in D minor Op.120 [Revised Version, 1851]Schumann
Genoveva, Op.81 – Overture

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Riccardo Chailly

Recorded in August, September & October 2006 in the Gewandhaus, Leipzig


Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: March 2007
CD No: DECCA 475 8352
Duration: 69 minutes

The immediate question is: ‘what is an arrangement?’ In the earlier part of the 19th-century it was very common for conductors to make additions and alterations to the scores of the great masters. Some of these ideas date back to Wagner. Even so ‘classical’ a conductor as Felix Weingartner included re-editing in his performances. Beethoven was often a target – for example the trumpet was given the main theme of the first movement of the ‘Eroica’ during the coda, horns introduced the second subject in the recapitulation of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth and in the scherzo of his Ninth Symphony horns were added to the exciting upward flourishes every time they appeared (I recall critics berating Toscanini for doing this, calling the result ‘wild whoops’). Beethoven did not write any of these things because the without-valves instruments of his day could not have played them.

These alterations are quite familiar and a number of recordings include them. No one called these additions ‘arrangements’, yet in this new recording of two of Schumann’s symphonies, Mahler’s additions are very much in line with the thinking of the Beethoven editors. I know where Mahler has made his main changes because the booklet note by David Matthews explains them, but I believe that without this explanation, few listeners would be aware of more than a small handful of Mahler’s amendments. To take the boldest example of all: Mahler amends the hushed link from the scherzo to the finale of Symphony No.4 by supplementing the horn parts and adding an extra drum to the existing pair of timpani. True, the drama is heightened a little, but for comparison I turned to Furtwängler’s 1953 recording and found that it was far more exciting than the new version, even without Mahler’s help.

In general Mahler ‘improves’ Symphony No.2 more by adjustment of dynamics than by orchestration, yet if a conductor had chosen to make these alterations to the original score, listeners would merely have accepted it as part of his interpretation and the word ‘arrangement’ would not have come to mind. Mahler makes one very questionable modification in the scherzo by removing the very short repeat of the first section of the first trio. This makes no sense because the equivalent first section of the second trio is repeated (it has to be, because the melody is fully written out with different orchestration when it is played a second time).

In Symphony No.4 matters of shape and form are even more disturbing. This work was written after the First symphony but Schumann revised it thoroughly and readjusted the orchestration. This means that Mahler’s score becomes an arrangement of an arrangement! One wise major change that Schumann made was to add the repeat of the exposition of the first movement in his Revised Version. Amazingly, Mahler removes it! It is bad enough when conductors omit composers’ repeats (fortunately this habit has mostly fallen into disuse nowadays) but for Mahler actually to cut it from the score seems high-handed in the extreme.

In all, these performances come out as ‘old-fashioned traditional’ rather as if the additions were no more than the conductor’s whims. Schumann’s orchestration has sometimes been criticised as being to thick but listen to Furtwängler’s Fourth (DG) or the complete set under Wolfgang Sawallisch (Dresden State Orchestra/EMI): here the instruments make their impact with great clarity. Chailly’s tempos are mostly convincing, and among the most impressive moments is the dashing scherzo of No. 2 where Mahler’s subtle inflections of dynamics make a most pleasing effect. On the other hand I don’t think Mahler can be blamed for the slightly reduced tempo during the trio sections of No.4. Reduction of speed here has been a tradition for years – the best that can be said for Chailly is that he is less worrying than most. I could have wished for more weight in the three chords that open the finale.

Chailly is an excellent conductor of 19th-century Romantic orchestral music – witness his magnificent Bruckner recordings for Decca – but I should have much preferred him to present (again, following his Amsterdam Concertgebouw version) ‘original’ Schumann. His fiery performance of the overture to “Genoveva” convinces that it could have made for an exciting venture.

The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra sounds splendidly colourful and ideally weighty. We know that this is the Leipzig orchestra but the omission of the word ‘Leipzig’ from the title on both the booklet and the label is strange. As for the recording, it is very well balanced. The timpani are admirably clear. The timpanist seems to be using large-headed sticks – not a good idea when seeking clarity in Haydn or Beethoven but very suitable for big-orchestra Schumann. Trumpets – often a problem in large-scale recording – blend beautifully with their brass colleagues within a spacious acoustic. At first I thought the sound a bit dull but after a while I could accept the engineering approach that seems to favour weight and impact over sparkle. This is not a disadvantage in this music. A very interesting release.

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