SCHUMANN Four Symphonies
Recordings of Schumann’s symphonies have recently tended towards the small-scale, with chamber orchestras and often period manners, as witness the likes of Dausgaard, Nézet-Séguin, Ticciati, Holliger et al. That trend was reversed with Simon Rattle’s big-band Berlin cycle, plushly upholstered and, with the exception of a startlingly intense Rhenish, broadly conceived. Now Michael Tilson Thomas follows suit with the full forces of the San Francisco Symphony, but acheiving a strikingly different result.
The San Franciscans, like the Berliners, display their virtuosity and discipline in a movement such as the Scherzo of the Second, following with pinpoint accuracy MTT’s subtle ritards and organic tempo-changes for the various episodes. There’s a growing feeling of foreboding in the same symphony’s slow introduction; although where Ticciati (Linn, 9/14) carries this mood through the ensuing Allegro – and indeed the whole work, finding blazing C major resolution only in the hard-won finale – Tilson Thomas settles for a more comfortable view: imaginatively phrased and contoured, to be sure, but without that extra conceptual complication to give added drive to this music.
Tilson Thomas seems happiest in the slow movements, where he encourages the San Franciscans to fill his generous paragraphs with their sumptuous tone. The playing throughout is one of the joys of this set, with characterful woodwind soloists (featuring especially perky clarinets) aided by a recording of remarkable clarity. Again and again the ear is caught by a detail – an inner string motif or a little wind commentary – that is so often swamped. This clarity, though, once more gives the lie to the received wisdom that Schumann was an orchestral amateur and reveals not only his personal appreciation of sonority but also his command of symphonic architecture.
The Spring, for me, is the finest performance here: tempos, while not as brisk as some, seem ideal nonetheless, and all those fine features mentioned above coalesce into something rather lovely. The Rhenish is good, too, although MTT’s depiction of Cologne Cathedral in the interpolated fourth movement is suave rather than craggy and monumental like Nézet-Séguin’s. The Scherzo of the Fourth is less manically driven and the opening movement’s Lebhaft a touch more sedate than, for instance, John Eliot Gardiner’s (but then, most people’s are – Archiv, 6/98).
These are live performances, the audience making themselves known only in the concluding applause that caps each symphony. One or two odd shifts in perspective, for instance in the Spring’s Scherzo, suggest occasional patches from rehearsal, but could equally be artefacts of the recording process. The pre-production review copy suggests a quality endeavour, even if it is trumped by the objet d’art feel of the Berlin product. Otherwise this is a worthy companion to the Rattle cycle, not least for the particularly fine Spring Symphony.