March 03, 2022


Schumann: 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.

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