March 16, 2023


Schumann: Symphonies Nos. 1-4; Symphony in D minor (original version, 1841); Symphony in G minor, “Zwickau”; Overture, Scherzo and Finale; Overtures—“Braut von Messina,” “Genoveva,” “Scenes from Goethe’s Faust,” “Julius Caesar,” “Manfred,” “Herrmann und Dorothea.” Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Örebro, conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. BIS. $39.99 (3 SACDs).

Beethoven: The Late String Quartets—Op. 127; Op. 130; Op. 131; Op. 132; Op. 135; Grosse Fuge, Op. 133. Calidore String Quartet (Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan, violins; Jeremy Barry, viola; Estelle Choi, cello). Signum Classics. $25.99 (3 CDs).

     There are certain normal, or at least expected, ways of handling releases of composers’ complete works in particular forms. For that matter, there are certain expectations when it comes to individual releases that do not encompass the totality of works of a specific type by the composer. Thus, listeners accustomed to the usual kinds of presentations have to set aside preconceptions of how works are offered in order to enjoy some very fine recordings that do not follow typical procedures. In the case of a three-CD release on BIS of the symphonies and overtures of Schumann, for instance, the audience has to accept this rather odd repackaging of discs that originally date to 2006-2008 in order to have the opportunity to enjoy some especially well-thought-out interpretations that use an orchestra close to the size of the ones Schumann would have expected – albeit without historically informed performance practices. There is a certain laziness to this reissue, as to others handled similarly by other companies: here, the three original SACDs are simply placed in plain paper sleeves and boxed with their three original booklets, whose writing style is variable and whose contents underwent changes between the first of these recordings and the last. The result is a boxed set that feels thrown-together – but the performances within it have lost none of their sensitivity and carefulness of presentation, and since they, after all, are the reason for purchasing the discs, it is worth putting up with some sloppiness in the overall presentation. The second and third discs in this Thomas Dausgaard collection feature symphonies at the start and finish, with two overtures separating the symphonic pieces. The first disc (actually the second to have been recorded) has Symphony No. 1 at the start and two almost-symphonies at the end: the early “Zwickau” work and Overture, Scherzo and Finale. The structural intent of all three discs is to open and close with larger, weightier material and contrast it with shorter pieces – concert overtures or ones written for dramas or Schumann’s only opera. One much-more-usual approach to presentations of Schumann’s symphonic output presents the symphonies in order – either four or five, depending on how one regards the original (1841) version of what came to be called No. 4 – with any ancillary or supplemental material added as an appendix. Another more-typical approach gives the various works chronologically – an interesting and useful way of presenting Schumann, whose style underwent notable changes over time. There is none of that form of organization here: this Dausgaard set’s arrangement takes some getting used to, although that in no way detracts from the quality of the music. The use of a chamber-sized orchestra is one of the main attractions here: Schumann’s works can at times come across as inelegantly orchestrated, even to the point of turgidity (notably in the second, final version of Symphony No. 4). Dausgaard’s ensemble size and his emphasis on clarity and careful sectional balance give us a lighter, airier Schumann than tends to appear in many other performances. Tempos are usually chosen judiciously for effective pacing, although the Scherzo from Overture, Scherzo and Finale is more of an underwhelming Allegretto here. The pleasant brightness of the “Spring” symphony and the surprisingly effective handling of the final version of No. 4 are highlights of these readings – although nothing here will lay to rest the ongoing debate as to which No. 4 “works” better. The problematic first movement of No. 2 is paced admirably quickly and with strong rhythmic emphasis, but the stateliness underlying the “Rhenish” is somewhat underplayed here. In all, though, the symphony interpretations are always thoughtful and consistent throughout each individual work, and the very fine orchestral playing benefits every one of the pieces. The overtures and “Zwickau” fragment are, on the whole, a bit less successful than the longer pieces: these are best focused with tightness and compression, especially when the underlying material is as tragic as in Manfred and Julius Caesar, but there is something a touch lightweight about these small tone poems under Dausgaard – the delicacy that aids the symphonies works less well in the overtures. Nevertheless, all these performances are very worthy ones, and it is a pleasure to have the symphony-and-overture grouping in a single boxed version, even if the arrangement of the material requires some adjustment of one’s expectations.

     There is not much unexpected in the sequence of music on a new Signum Classics release featuring the Calidore String Quartet – although there is one sort-of-surprise offered – but the release itself is out of the ordinary. Complete sets of the Beethoven string quartets almost invariably start with the six early ones, continue with the six middle ones, and conclude with the five late ones. Indeed, the early/middle/late “period” discussion of Beethoven’s music ties in large part to the differences among these quartet groupings. The Calidore String Quartet, however, has decided that its first release in a planned Beethoven cycle should be the late quartets – thus plunging listeners immediately into some of the most-complex, often unnerving and emotionally very deep material, to which Beethoven came only at the end of his quartet production. This is very difficult music both to understand and to play, and the Calidore String Quartet’s decision to offer it before recording the earlier, generally more-accessible Beethoven quartets upends the usual audience expectations regarding an ensemble’s presentation of the entire cycle. There is also, as noted, one sort-of-surprise in the music itself: instead of performing No. 13 (Op. 130) as written and appending the Grosse Fuge (Op. 133) afterwards, as is the usual procedure, this recording makes the Grosse Fuge the final movement of the quartet – as Beethoven originally intended – and appends the replacement finale that he created after being convinced that the Grosse Fuge was just too much for performers and audiences to handle as a quartet conclusion. Whether the Calidore String Quartet’s decision on this works well will be a matter of taste: this is not the only ensemble to offer the quartet this way, but this is a distinct minority approach, and it can certainly be argued that the Grosse Fuge is in fact more than the music can really handle – even though it is no longer considered nearly unplayable (just extremely difficult). In fact, the performance of the Grosse Fuge here is perhaps the highlight of the entire recording: it is played with tremendous precision, and its lines come across so clearly that its structural complexity seems both perfectly apt and absolutely necessary to make its musical points. At the same time, its monumentality really does overshadow the rest of Op. 130, so this excellent rendition does not settle the no-doubt-unsettleable argument over whether the Grosse Fuge works better on its own or as the capstone for Op. 130. It is worth noting that the Cavatina in Op. 130, as gorgeous a movement as Beethoven ever wrote, is in its own way as effective and emotionally enthralling as the Grosse Fuge. Indeed, elsewhere in this recording, the most-engaging elements are in the variation-based slow movements, whose lyricism flows forth abundantly and always with deep involvement from the performers that translates with great sensitivity to listeners. A few of the faster movements, on the other hand, can be nitpicked, including one within Op. 130 itself: the fourth movement, just before the Cavatina, sounds a bit too heavy and perhaps even a little hesitant. Elsewhere, there is a bit too much speed, notably in the middle of the Scherzando vivace of Op. 127. And there is a very occasional veer toward the flaccid, if not quite the ponderous, as in the Alla marcia of Op. 132, which is a touch mannered. It is important, however, to emphasize that these nitpicks are just that – nitpicks – not criticisms of the players’ overall approach, which is carefully wrought and delivered through remarkably meticulous ensemble playing. The sheer technical prowess of the Calidore String Quartet is everywhere on display here, and their interpretative abilities shine through again and again despite an occasional (very occasional) misstep. Their decision to start their Beethoven cycle with the late quartets may be unconventional, but this recording certainly shows that they are more than capable of handling everything Beethoven produced in the string-quartet medium. And the uniformly high quality of this first entry in their recordings raises considerable hope (and expectations) for their upcoming readings of the rest of Beethoven’s quartets.

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