Classical Music

Review: Schumann – Symphonies Nos. 3 & 4


This completes Alsop and the ORF Vienna’s Schumann symphony cycle in Mahler’s reorchestrations. In my review of the first release (October 2022) I wrote that the readings were beautifully prepared and that Alsop brough an essentially lyric approach to the symphonies. The same is true in here.

Alsop sets a good pace for the opening of the ‘Rhenish,’ the Viennese strings singing out their initial melody. But the overall orchestral sound is too lightweight, the brass too reticent at 0’19”, especially in comparison to Alsop’s mentor Leonard Bernstein in his reading with the Vienna Philharmonic (DG). The sound of that older album also had far greater presence than what Naxos provide, and the Philharmonic’s tonal opulence far outshines their Radio Symphony colleagues.

Alsop shapes the melodic line and harmonic rhythm masterfully, but the sense of struggle, so clearly a part of the Bernstein and recent Barenboim (also DG) recordings, is woefully absent, so the arrival at 2’23” feels underpowered. Note too that Bernstein also embraces a great deal more rubato and tempo change to heighten the music’s tension. Alsop’s more streamlined approach perhaps reflects the influence of historically informed performance practice. But if she has chosen to use Mahler’s late Romantic version of these symphonies, should we not hope for an interpretation where emotion and theatricality are an integral part? The Coda’s final moments are joyous but fleet, the lack of conflict in the movement making the joy feel too easily won. This is perhaps in part because of Mahler’s changes: according to David Matthews, the trumpets in Schumann’s original score playing in 311 bars, but Mahler reduces that to 191 – maybe the lack of power is, at least in part, due to Mahler.

Alsop’s approach suits the inner movements better. There is a playful nimbleness to the exchanges between winds and string exchanges. Listeners who know Schumann’s original will notice several significant changes, including in the opening bars where Mahler marks the first 4 bars MP followed by a sudden change to FF in the next 4 bars (Schumann’s marking is simply MF). The disruptive chords at 3’10 are again a bit underpowered (or less overwrought, depending on your view) than in the Bernstein and Barenboim performances. Nevertheless, Alsop and the orchestra impart and a delightful swing to the movement. The lack of trumpets at 4’42” is again notable, reinforcing the sense of a string-dominated texture.

There is buoyancy too in the third movement, though the wind solos are anonymous compared to Dausgaard’s Swedish players (BIS) or the Bremen players under Jarvi (Sony Classical). The fourth movement is solemn and beautiful but fails to capture the music’s awestruck grandeur so tangible in the recordings by Sawallisch (Warner Classics) and Karajan (DG). The final movement brings a noticeable increase of fire and energy (perhaps a different recording day?). Nevertheless, the mercurial shifts in mood are smoothed over when compared to the more overtly Romantic readings mentioned above – even the Coda, feels tightly reigned in when compared to Sawallisch (Bernstein’s exuberance is unparalleled). 

The performance of the fourth symphony is much the same, its opening lovingly shaped but lacking in mystery (whereas Furtwängler conjures a potently forbidding atmosphere in his classic reading on DG). The Allegro again offers a cool objectivity that disappoints when compared to Karajan’s final Vienna reading, which fully explores the music’s angst. The color and emotional tone of the slow movement is forlorn and beautiful, especially in the oboe and cello’s initial statement of the theme. The Scherzo has a pleasing rowdiness, the beguiling gentleness of the first trio bringing out a connection to Mahler’s discarded ‘Blumine’ from his first symphony. 

The final movement begins with more palpable sense of mystery, flowing organically into the following Presto. But again, the playing seems to skirt over the music’s darker more threatening undertones, so that climaxes do not bring any sense of overcoming struggle. And in the coda the orchestra again feels reigned in. 

While the liner notes make more mention of Mahler’s alternations than in the first volume, David Matthew’s notes for the Gewandhaus/Chailly recording (Decca) are far more informative. Naxos’ sound lacks presence and impact, making the orchestra sound more distant that it did in the first album in this series. Chailly’s readings remain the prime recommendation for Mahler’s edition, though those who prefer more lyricism in Schumann’s orchestral writing may enjoy these performances more than me.

Schumann – Symphonies No. 3 & 4
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra
Marin Alsop – Conductor
Naxos, 8574430

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