John Elliot Gardiner Conducts Schumann
The year 2010 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Robert Schumann (1810- 1855). I took the first of what I hope will be many opportunities to revisit his music by listening to this recording of Schumann's symphonies by John Elliott Gardiner conducting the Orchestre Revolutionarire et Romantique. This 3-CD set dates from 1998 and have been out-of-print. But these recordings are lively, lucid, and inspired readings of this great romantic composer.
Gardiner is best-known for period performances. Many listeners associate "period" recordings with music of the Baroque and early classical periods; but, as shown here, it offers insights into later music as well. Schumann's symphonies frequently are undervalued due to the composer's claimed deficiencies with orchestration. Many performances of his works sound clotted and muddy, allegedly as a result of Schumann's shortcomings as an orchestral composer. It is common to use "retouched" versions of the scores in performance. Gardiner argues that the heavy orchestral sound and sometimes ponderous rhythm in performances of these works is due in large part to late romantic performance practices, in particular the use of large orchestras which with their size and arrangement of instruments create imbalances when used to play Schumann. Thus these works are performed by a reduced orchestra consisting of about 50 performers which is the ensemble Schumann generally would have had available. Gardiner has made other adjustments in balancing the instruments, including changes in phrasing and articulation, that effect the sound. The result is that these Schumann symphonies have a lightness of texture that belies the heavy-handed sound of many performances. The instrumental voicing becomes less opaque, with many solos for horns, clarinets, flutes, and other instruments gracing these readings. If there remain any listeners with questions about Schumann's gifts for large-scale orchestral compositions, as opposed to piano works and songs, this collection should put these doubts to rest.
Schumann's first symphony, the "Spring" symphony in B flat major, opus 38, composed in 1841 receives a fresh spontaneous performance here, especially in the triumphal concluding movement. This is a young man's music of spontaneity, lyricism and love in which Schumann established a symphonic voice for himself separate from that of Beethoven.
The symphony no 2 in C major, opus 61, is the longest of Schumann's four symphonies and shows the influence of Schubert's "great" C major symphony. This is a triumphal, joyful work in three of its four movements. But its climax is in the contrastingly lyrical and tragic "Adagio expressivo" of the third movements, one of the high points of Schumann's symphonic output.
The "Rhenish" symphony, no. 3 in E-flat major opus 97 is the most frequently performed of the four, with its horncalls and joyful themes. This five-movement work includes two consecutive slow movements, of which the second makes great use of counterpoint and deep expressivity.
Probably the highlight of this set is the two readings Gardiner offers of the Symphony no. 4 in d minor, opus 120. Schumann originally composed this symphony in 1841, when it was indifferently received. The work is in four interconnected movements with many overlapping themes. In 1851, Schumann edited the work by expanding it somewhat and by adding and doubling voices to give the symphony a more solemn character. This version is almost always heard in performance, and it is the work most often used to illustrate the composer's problems with orchestration. Gardiner offers readings of the work as Schumann composed it in 1841 and as he revised it 10 years later. The difference in texture is apparent. The earlier version is a much lighter and lyrical composition than its successor. As with any edit, Schumann improved the work in part when he returned to it. He deepened the work and gave it a more serious tone but at the cost of the transparency and lightness of the earlier version. Gardiner shows a preference for the 1841 score, and I tend to agree. It is worthwhile to have the opportunity to hear both versions of this noble and ambitious romantic symphony.
There are three additional works on this CD. These works include Schumann's early and awkward g minor symphony which dates from 1832, the late Koncertstuck for orchestra and four horns, opus 86, which is difficult to perform successfully, and the overture, scherzo and finale, opus 52, which dates from 1841. Of these three pieces, this last work will reward re-hearing.