September 16, 2010


Schumann: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie conducted by Frank Beermann. CPO. $33.99 (2 SACDs).

Schumann: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Grzegorz Nowak. RPO. $29.99 (2 CDs).

Batons, Bows and Bruises: A History of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. DVD written, produced and directed by Andrew Colin Davies. RPO. $19.99 (DVD+CD).

     This year’s bicentennial of Schumann’s birth has spawned reconsiderations of his music, some new editions and a number of versions of his four symphonies. These two new symphony cycles are a study in contrasts: Nowak’s generally slower-paced and more massive, Beermann’s more detail-oriented and with a fresher sound.

     The symphonies actually sound good in both interpretations – Schumann admits of multiple effective readings – but Beermann, who uses a new edition by Joachim Draheim, generally gets the better of things. In No. 1, “Spring,” Beermann’s first movement opens with very strong brass and is bright-sounding and enthusiastically played, with wide dynamic range and a quick coda; the Scherzo also features good brass highlights, with a slow first trio and speedy second one; and the finale is all geniality. In No. 2, whose problematic first movement can easily drag, Beermann opts for a very slow introduction to the movement, followed by a speedy main section and broad dynamic range. The Scherzo is quick and lively. Then comes an Adagio espressivo that is very expressive indeed, if a bit fast – and a finale that is very spirited and fleet-footed. For No. 3, the “Rhenish,” Beermann is resolutely upbeat and buoyant in the first movement; the second and third flow well; the more-serious fourth has appropriate weight; and the finale is truly rousing, especially the coda. And in No. 4 – which both Beermann and Nowak play in the more-common revised version of 1851 rather than the original version of a decade earlier – Beermann is quick and intense in the first movement, with clear textures, but a touch too fast in the Romanze, whose lovely violin solo is therefore less than fully effective. The Scherzo is quick and strongly accented, and the finale is rhythmically well defined, with especially impressive timpani.

     Nowak’s readings are somewhat more conventional and, on the whole, not as impressive – but his Fourth comes across better than Beermann’s. The warmth and full sound of Nowak’s performance are winning: his rendition strides forth boldly, featuring a warm and lovely violin solo in the Romanze, a well-contrasted Scherzo, and a very effective finale with excellent rhythms, pacing and flow. His other three performances are less effective. No. 1 is a touch flaccid, especially in the second movement, and the Scherzo’s second trio and entire finale both sound rushed – this is the only symphony in which Nowak’s reading is faster than Beermann’s. In No. 2, Nowak adheres more closely to the designated tempo of the first movement than Beermann does, but as a result the movement sometimes flags. The Scherzo is fine, but the Adagio espressivo is a bit ponderous. And in the finale, Nowak twice introduces very intrusive rubato that unwarrantedly slows everything down. Nowak’s “Rhenish” is more pedestrian than Beermann’s, with brass not always featured as prominently as it could be (Nowak hesitates to bring it forward when it is not actually carrying a theme). The Scherzo is rather hesitant, although the finale has good bounce.

     The Royal Philharmonic sounds quite good for Nowak, and anyone interested in finding out more about how the orchestra got to its current high level of quality should enjoy the DVD-plus-CD combo called Batons, Bows and Bruises, which provides a history of the RPO from its founding by Sir Thomas Beecham. Beecham himself, and others important in the ensemble’s history, appear in the DVD, which is well-presented by Andrew Sachs. But the included CD may be the more interesting part of this (+++) set. It offers words and/or performances by five conductors who have led the RPO at various times in its more-than-60-year history. Beecham himself gives two brief sets of remarks and conducts a dab of Debussy and a bit of Gounod. Rudolf Kempe offers the finale from Beethoven’s Symphony No.3, AndrĂ© Previn leads Walton’s Henry V suite, Sir Charles Groves conducts Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, and Daniele Gatti directs Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture and is interviewed afterwards. The whole production is, of course, calculated to show the RPO in the best possible light – it is something of a vanity release, with interesting anecdotes but certainly nothing scurrilous or at all troubling to any public-relations person. Batons, Bows and Bruises is for fans of this particular orchestra who would like to see and hear a bit more of it and of some of the conductors who have led it over the years, but it is not a release to be recommended on strictly musical grounds. However, it was clearly not developed on that basis, either.

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