Review: Schumann – Symphonies Nos. 1 & 2

Readers may wonder if we really need another Schumann symphony cycle, but Marin Alsop and her Viennese orchestra are performing the symphonies in Mahler’s ‘re-orchestrations” – a much rarer offering. These versions were last recorded in 2008 by the Gewandhausorchester and Riccardo Chailly. That set proved superior in every way to the only other competition, performances by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under Aldo Ceccato on BIS. So, this new set (the other two symphonies are expected soon) is welcome.

While the new recording describes these as “re-orchestrations,” it is important to note that a vast number of the changes are dynamic revisions. Mahler’s goal, in the words of composer David Matthew’s, was to “make everything stand out more clearly.” There are 830 revisions in the first symphony and 355 in the second. One of the most striking changes is heard in the initial bars of the first symphony: at its first rehearsal Schumann discovered that G and A could not be played by the valveless brass without hand-stopping. Schumann disliked the timbre of hand-stopped pitches, so the conductor (Felix Mendelssohn!) suggested moving the entire phrase up a third, a revision that quickly became permanent. Mahler, working with valved instruments, returns to Schumann’s original. 

Alsop’s reading of the first symphony is beautifully prepared, with warm and robust orchestral sound and a refreshingly unfussy and direct interpretation. This is arguably Schumann’s happiest, least troubled symphony, and Alsop inspires an atmosphere of gentle contentment. Chailly’s performance (as well as those of the original Schumann score like Gardiner and Heras-Casado) has a more frenetic energy in the outer movements, with more clipped phrasing and sharper attacks. All three conductors are faster than Alsop in most movements. Yet I was captivated by Alsop’s softer approach and the warm, roundness of sound that she gets from her orchestra. It is the perfect antidote for anyone unhappy with historically informed performance practice’s encroachment into Romantic repertoire.

The second symphony, however, is less successful, in large part because Alsop’s interpretative approach remains much the same, despite the music’s darker emotional journey. Written in 1845-46 when Schumann was struggling with deep depression, the music fully communicates that emotional upheaval. The turbulent restlessness of the first movement is only fitfully realized in Alsop’s reading. The Viennese players make light work of the scherzo’s technical difficulties, and Alsop finds a convincing balance of light and shade, but the relentless, obsessive drive of Gardiner and Heras-Casado is ultimately more persuasive.

The third movement has an aching lyricism, beautifully sung by the strings, though the wind solos have even greater finesse in Leipzig. Schumann’s victorious writing in the finale is clearly modeled on Beethoven’s fifth, but Alsop again shies away from the music’s extroverted celebration, perhaps in a search for greater nobility. Towards the end of the movement attentive listeners will notice Mahler’s most drastic revision: in measures 559-63 (7’46”) he changes Schumann’s harmony and adds a moving bass line that begins on G instead of original sustained F. 

Rodney Smith’s liner notes offer a brief biography of the composer and the two symphonies. Frustratingly, discussion of Mahler’s changes is brief and based on the false assumption that Schumann’s “‘idiosyncratic’ orchestration is actually perfectly suited to a historically informed performance by a 45-strong orchestra using period instruments.” Conductors such as Sawallisch, Holliger, Rattle, and Heras-Casado have all successfully refuted such an assertion. There is no doubt that Mahler’s modifications do accomplish what they set out to do, but perhaps what makes them more interesting to the listener is the glimpse they provide of how Mahler heard this music, and what, as a conductor, he thought the music should sound like. 

The liner notes by David Matthew included in the Gewandhaus/Chailly performances are far more informative about Mahler’s revisions. Ultimately, Chailly’s readings remain the prime recommendation for these editions, though I urge all readers to hear Alsop’s performance of the ‘Spring’ symphony.

Schumann – Symphonies No. 4
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop – Conductor
Naxos, 8574429

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