Deja Review Schumann Symphs 1-4 Sawallisch EMI 5677682

Déjà Review: this review was first published in May 2002 and the recording is still available.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Symphony No 1 in B-flat major, ‘Spring’
Symphony No 2 in C major
Symphony No 3 in E-flat major, ‘Rhenish’
Symphony No 4 in D minor
Overture, Scherzo and Finale
Dresden Staatskapelle / Wolfgang Sawallisch
rec. 1972, Lukaskirche, Dresden
Reviewed as EMI Classics 5 67768-2
Warner Classics 2564 607594 [2 CDs: 148]

In many respects Schumann is the archetypal romantic artist: deeply influenced by literature, committed to powerfully intense emotions, creatively aware of the virtuosity of performers. He was himself a fine pianist, and the first twenty-three of his published compositions were for his own instrument. His marriage to Clara Wieck in 1840 coincided with a new phase in his creative life, concentrating on song, for in that year alone he composed some 140 lieder. Then two years later chamber music became his priority, with three string quartets, and a piano quartet and quintet, the latter one of the finest examples of the genre.

Schumann also wrote four fine symphonies and three concertos, one each for the cello, the violin and the piano, as well as choral music and two works for the theatre. But the man himself remains something of an enigma, a depressive whose mental anguish resulted in 1852 in a failed suicide attempt, and incarceration in an asylum for the last two years of his tragically short life. Much of his output is little known, but there is no doubt that Schumann was one of the key figures of the romantic movement and one of the great composers of the 19th century.

Recorded in 1972 and first issued the following year, Wolfgang Sawallisch’s set of the complete Schumann symphonies has seldom been out of the catalogues since. This latest incarnation takes the form of a two disc set in EMI’s ‘Great Recordings of the Century’ series, where it will hold a justly secure place.

The original 3LP issue contained one extra piece which is sadly no longer included, simply on grounds of CD space. The work in question, the Manfred Overture, might not be regarded as one of Schumann’s very greatest works, but its omission remains a frustration. The reason can be found readily enough from the extraordinarily even – and extraordinarily high – quality of the music making throughout the remainder of the set.

The opening fanfare of the Spring Symphony sets the tone, confident and supremely well phrased. The EMI recording in the ideal acoustic of Dresden’s Lukaskirche, plays its part too, affording the music ample reverberation and richness of sonority, but alongside wonderfully refined details. The CD remastering has simply confirmed what was already there.

The Second Symphony, like the First, has a spacious introduction, which leads to a lively and purposeful movement at tempo Allegro. Sawallisch never rushes, nor does he drag. Indeed it is hard to conceive of alternative approaches when his recordings are playing. Of course, the music is great enough to offer all manner of options to performers. The point about a great performance, as about a great piece, is that when one encounters it, the experience makes one believe it to be ‘the greatest’.

Rarely can the Rhenish Symphony have sounded so atmospheric, so noble as it does in this performance. The most thrilling moment is perhaps the prominent passage for horns towards the end of the first movement, which Sawallisch and his engineers actually take more forcefully than the score states. But in fact the result is nothing if not compelling, intensifying Schumann’s vision. Another landmark is the solemn slow movement, inspired by a solemn ceremonial in Cologne Cathedral. The shadings of dynamics, the atmospheric tensions, are very special, eloquently unfolded with subtle attention to line and to details of texture. The Fourth Symphony is altogether more taut, its unity of design across four linked movements always a particular priority for Schumann. This much revised work eventually became a miracle of nuance and subtle unity, and the balancing of the eloquent violin solo gives clear evidence that Schumann was a better orchestrator than his reputation has sometimes suggested.

There is room for one extra item, and most welcome it is. The Overture, Scherzo and Finale, as the title suggests, is an embryonic symphony, and its vitality, its symphonic direction and purpose are all self recommending. At less than twenty minutes, it will always feature as an afterthought rather than as a programming priority, but the quality of invention and the vitality of the music’s rhythmic activity will sustain its survival. Again, Sawallisch and the excellent Dresden orchestra give a matchless performance, setting the standard against which others will be judged.

With such splendid standards of music making, recording and presentation, this is a benchmark issue which fully justifies its self-generated accolade among the pantheon of ‘Great Recordings of the Century’.

Terry Barfoot

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