September 13, 2012


Schumann: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2. Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $9.99.

Schumann: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4. Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $9.99.
Schumann: Piano Concerto; Manfred Overture; Overture, Scherzo and Finale. Bella Davidovich, piano; Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $9.99.

      Some conductors are particularly distinguished for their commitment to less-often-heard music, such as 20th- and 21st-century works, but seem somewhat out of their element in more-traditional repertoire.  Marin Alsop is one who comes immediately to mind; a great deal of the time, Gerard Schwarz is another.  The three Naxos re-releases of Schumann performances that originally appeared on the Delos label show Schwarz managing his Seattle Symphony well but not bringing any particular interpretative fire or originality to the works themselves.

      In Schumann’s Symphony No. 1 (“Spring”), recorded in 1988, the first movement features some attractive instrumental details but imprecise handling of tempo: Schwarz speeds things up from time to time for no good reason.  The second movement, taken rather slowly, showcases strong strings.  In the third, Schwarz has the players lean into the music with a strong legato line that makes this into a more-serious and rather downbeat scherzo rather than a bright one.  And the tempo of the finale, like that of the first movement, is slippery.  In Symphony No. 2, a 1989 performance, the first movement is nicely paced and builds well, but the tempo bobbles a bit in the scherzo, and the lovely third movement comes across as pleasant but scarcely profound.  The finale is simply ordinary, well played but undistinguished.  The final chord, which sounds rather half-hearted and is certainly not emphatic, seems to represent the interpretation as a whole.

     Symphony No. 3 (“Rhenish”) was recorded in 1990.  The first movement starts very well indeed, but it seems to run out of steam about one-quarter of the way in, almost going into stasis.  And the brass performance is odd: the horns are excellent, but the trumpets are dull-sounding by comparison.  The horns are good again in the second movement, but the music plods, slowing again and again, repeatedly losing rhythmic vitality.  The third and fourth movements have pleasant ebb and flow but are nothing special, and the finale has a pronounced legato feel even in places where it should have greater bounce.  There is also a strange, four-minute timing error here: the finale is four minutes shorter than the CD indicates, and the total CD time is also overstated by the same four minutes – an odd error.  Schwarz’s best performance in the symphonies is of No. 4, recorded in 1992.  The first movement builds particularly well, although the strong chords are rather mild and muted, and the second and third movements, while scarcely revelatory and tending to drift at times, move ahead nicely.  The finale has a particularly bright start, and the horns, here as elsewhere, are a big plus.  As a whole, this is a middle-of-the-road Schumann symphony cycle that takes no big chances and offers no major revelations.  It is perfectly adequate but scarcely inspired or inspiring.

      The 1990 recording of the Piano Concerto with Bella Davidovich is a broad one – rather too broad – with a fine pianist whose brightness seems sometimes at odds with Schwarz’s more desultory approach.  The first movement starts too slowly, but soon speeds up; as a whole, it meanders, never catching interpretative fire.  The second movement is effectively gentle, with lovely work by the winds.  The third movement also flows gently, but here that approach is less appropriate: there is little dramatic or exciting here, and the overall effect is of a work that meanders rather than building.  The Manfred Overture, recorded in 1991, although well played, is also lacking in intensity – it tends to flag from a dramatic standpoint.  The Overture, Scherzo and Finale, from 1989, opens with an earnest movement whose coda is particularly good, but then lapses into a moderately paced middle movement that sounds flabby.  The finale starts well but, as in several other instances on these CDs, Schwarz soon slows down, then picks up the pace again, leading to an overall feeling of disconnectedness.  As a whole, these three Schumann discs are unexceptional and unexceptionable: their flaws are minor and frequent rather than major and occasional, but their overall effect is of prosaic run-throughs of the music rather than strong, committed and caring performances.

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