Symphonies Nos. 1-4.
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR conducted by Roger Norrington. SWR
Music. $12.99 (2 CDs).
A fascinating if sometimes wrongheaded approach to Schumann’s symphonies,
this cycle of live recordings featuring Roger Norrington and the
Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart des SWR may not be most listeners’ first
choice in this repertoire but surely deserves to be owned as a second or third
version. These are performances from 2004 that stand up very well in both sound
and interpretation, their flaws largely stemming from Norrington’s
determination to implement his very thoughtful analyses of the symphonies even
if so doing does not always serve the music as well as might be expected.
The thoughtfulness is apparent from the inclusion in this two-CD set of
spoken introductions by Norrington to all four symphonies. These are in English
and are clearly reflective of a conductor who genuinely understands the music,
its antecedents and its place in history and in the concert hall, and who has
very strong interpretative opinions regarding the material. However, getting to
Norrington’s excellent commentary requires listeners to jump around on the
discs a bit: the comments on the symphonies on each disc appear after both
performances have finished, not before each reading, and the odd arrangement of
the CDs (Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3 on the first disc, Nos. 2 and 4 on the second)
makes matters worse, since everything would have fit easily if the discs had
simply included Nos. 1 and 2, then Nos. 3 and 4. Still, it is worthwhile even
for listeners who know this music well to listen to what Norrington has to say before hearing his performance of each
work, because his insights are genuine and intelligent, and some are surprising
but, on reflection, quite apt. In the latter category, for example, is his
comment that all four symphonies have specific thematic content, not just the
first (“Spring”) and third (“Rhenish”). The second, Norrington explains, is
Schumann’s Bach symphony – an intriguing viewpoint, since comparisons with
Beethoven are more common here: Norrington acknowledges those, but insists they
are of lesser importance. The fourth symphony, Norrington says, is the “Clara
Symphony,” devoted in large measure, structurally and thematically, to
Schumann’s wife. Arguable this may be, but it is without doubt a fascinating
lens through which to observe and play the music.
Norrington’s understanding of these symphonies is especially apparent in
his respect for their time period and Schumann’s place in it. He uses the correct
ensemble size and the orchestral seating of Schumann’s time (split violins,
double basses at the rear, horns and trumpets on opposite sides), and carefully
observes period expectations regarding phrasing and note values. This makes the
symphonies seem fresh despite their familiarity in the concert hall.
Furthermore, Norrington performs the first, much-less-often-heard version of
Symphony No. 4 (which was actually written second by Schumann): this one has
cleaner orchestration and uses an
overall smaller ensemble, avoiding the doubling of parts that is prominent in
the sound of the more-often-performed second version. A few recordings of the
Schumann cycle offer both versions – those conducted by Heinz Holliger and John
Eliot Gardiner, for example. But most recordings opt for the 1851 revision
rather than the decade-earlier original. Thanks to the size of his ensemble and
his care in seating the performers, Norrington’s choice to use the 1841 version
of Symphony No. 4 makes perfect sense and provides a strong argument for this
version’s superiority (Norrington even points out that Brahms considered it the
better of the two).
His handling of the 1841 Symphony No. 4 is a major strength of
Norrington’s cycle. The other symphonies, however, do not come off quite as
well. Norrington’s spoken introduction to No. 1 omits the interesting way in
which Schumann opens the work with the exact rhythm of the words of Adolph Böttger that inspired the music: “O wende, wende deinen
Lauf / Im Thale blüht der Frühling auf!" (“O turn, o turn, change your
course – In the valley, Spring blooms!”) More significantly, the performance
misses some of the ebullience of the music, notably in the finale, which is
less grazioso than Schumann intended.
In Symphony No. 3, to whose very serious and forward-looking fourth movement (Feierlich) Norrington aptly draws
attention, neither the first movement’s strength nor the finale’s lightness
comes through as fully as possible – there is a certain amount of cautious restraint
in both movements. Norrington is also addicted to inappropriate rubato from time to time, notably at
movement conclusions – a surprise, given his usual careful attention to
informed performance practice.
It is Symphony No. 2 that suffers the most from decisions that are
usually fairly minor matters elsewhere. Norrington considers this Schumann’s
greatest symphony and, indeed, a high point in 19th-century
symphonic creation. He argues persuasively in his introductory remarks that the
symphony juxtaposes the two sides of Schumann’s personality – outgoing
Florestan and inward-focused Eusebius – and eventually reconciles them. That is
an excellent way to make a case for this symphony, which not all conductors
regard nearly so highly (Georg Tintner, for example, found the first movement
so weak and unconvincing as to pull down the entire work). Unfortunately,
Norrington is so determined to pursue
the Florestan-Eusebius approach that he turns Schumann’s elegant forward motion
into something grotesque in the finale – and gives the first movement such a
slow pace that objections such as Tintner’s seem all too understandable.
Norrington correctly notes the unusual nature of the second movement Scherzo and the difference between its
two trios, and he certainly plumbs the emotional depths of the third movement’s
Adagio espressivo – indeed, perhaps
over-plumbs them. But if the middle movements are largely convincing here, the
outer ones are not, and the performance becomes all that more of a
disappointment in light of Norrington’s professed admiration for this symphony
and its significance.
Certainly there are far more pluses than minuses in this Schumann cycle, with the attention to historical performance practices, the seating of the orchestra and the overall excellence of the musicians’ playing being major strengths. But the sometimes quirky way in which Norrington implements his very carefully considered view of the music is puzzling, and if Symphony No. 4 comes off exceptionally well here, Symphony No. 2 is a genuine disappointment. This very-well-priced SWR Music release provides some highly interesting perspectives on Schumann – but is not consistent enough to be worthy of first place in listeners’ music libraries.