ROBERT SCHUMANN (1810 – 1856): Symphony No. 1 in B♭ Major, Op. 38 (‘Spring’), Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Op. 61, Symphony No. 3 in E♭ Major, Op. 97 (‘Rhenish’), Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120 (1851 version)—Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ by Radio France during concerts at the Cité de la Musique, Paris, France, during November 2012; DGG 479 2437; 2CD, 124:23; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]
Robert Schumann was a great composer. That any debate about this distinction continues, more than 150 years after his death, is inexplicable. In post-Freudian assessments of Schumann’s music, there is a predilection for focusing overmuch on the effects of the composer’s mental illness on his scores, much as critics and scholars seek to attribute every detail of Dame Iris Murdoch’s novels to forewarnings, manifestations, or ravages of Alzheimer’s, but Schumann’s music is a triumph of ingenuity over adversity. Schumann’s significance as a ‘crossroads’ composer of Teutonic Romanticism is nowhere more evident than in his four Symphonies, composed—and, in the case of the score eventually published as the Fourth Symphony in D minor, revised—over the course of a decade (1841 – 1851), when his creative powers were at their peak. Artistically, Schumann’s Symphonies are collectively like a reservoir: having dammed the inflows of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, this quartet of pivotal scores enriched the musical waters that flowed out into the music of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, and Mahler.
Though Schumann’s Symphonies retain places in the repertories of most of the world’s major orchestras, too many performances seem prompted by duty rather than desire. One of the most gratifying qualities of the performances by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and Québécois conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, recorded ‘live’ by Radio France and preserved by Deutsche Grammophon in spacious, meticulously-balanced sound that adheres to the Yellow Label’s legendary standards of excellence, is the audible zeal with which the Symphonies are played. The true madness to which Schumann’s Symphonies fall victim is that of misapprehension and neglect, and it is encouraging to find a young orchestra and one of today’s finest young conductors bringing to these masterworks tonal and interpretive warmth indicative of legitimate appreciation and affection. A smaller ensemble than many orchestras that have recorded Schumann’s Symphonies, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe produces lean textures that heighten the clarity with which Schumann’s orchestration is revealed to the listener without lessening the impact of the boldest passages. In comparison with both his contemporaries and later composers whose music his Symphonies influenced, Schumann’s scoring is rarely dense, and the Orchestra’s sharply-focused playing in these performances enables both Maestro Nézet-Séguin and the listener to give full attention to the nuances of the music and the manner in which Schumann utilized sonic textures as expressive devices.
Composed in 1841 and first performed under the baton of Felix Mendelssohn, Schumann’s First Symphony—christened the ‘Spring’ in response, at least in part, to the inspiration that the composer drew from his awakening love for his beloved wife Clara—was the work that established his reputation as a composer of large-scale orchestral music. The hypnotic freshness of the music is touched by suggestions of the melancholy to which Schumann was prone, but luminosity prevails. This is superbly conveyed by the playing of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. In the first movement (Andante un poco maestoso – Allegro molto vivace), Maestro Nézet-Séguin sets a tempo for the introduction that evolves organically into the faster pace of the development, and momentum is maintained without forcing the flow of the music. The Larghetto second movement is lovingly played by the Orchestra and handled with finesse by the conductor, the simple grace of the music spotlighted by the restraint and subtlety of the interpretation. The Scherzo is performed with attention to the contrasts of the Trios, and the final movement (Allegro animato e grazioso) receives a reading that shimmers with precisely the qualities that define it: animation and graciousness.
Though its genesis was contemporaneous with that of the First Symphony, the Fourth Symphony was substantially revised and only published in 1851. In this recording, the Fourth Symphony is logically presented in its appropriate chronological position, but Maestro Nézet-Séguin justifiably prefers the 1851 version of the score to the first version advocated by Brahms. The 1851 version is the more expansive of the two incarnations of the Symphony, and Maestro Nézet-Séguin harnesses the increased profundity of the music to a broadly-phrased performance of the Symphony. The outer movements (I: Ziemlich langsam – Lebhaft, IV: Langsam; Lebhaft) are handled with vivacity that is imaginatively differentiated from the almost severe levity of the Scherzo. Maestro Nézet-Séguin infuses his conducting of the Romanze (Ziemlich langsam) with profundity but avoids overextending the thoughtfully-constructed thematic material. Both Maestro Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestra disclose comprehensive understanding of Schumann’s individual uses of harmonic progressions and sonata form to create and relieve tension among the four movements, which are performed without pauses as stipulated by the composer.
Though sketched in a matter of days in December 1845, circumstances of Schumann’s deteriorating mental and physical health prolonged his completion of the Second Symphony. While similar situations have drawn expressions of dark sentiments from many composers, Schumann lavished some of his most euphoric music on the Second Symphony. The composer’s study of the music of Bach surely prompted the chorale-like structure of the opening subject of the first movement (Sostenuto assai – Allegro, ma non troppo), and the consistency of Maestro Nézet-Séguin’s phrasing upon each restatement and transformation of the chorale elevates the sly homage to Bach to a veritable Leitmotif. The shifting harmonic foundation of the Scherzo is built with unerring intonation by the Orchestra, and Maestro Nézet-Séguin takes great care to divulge the varied characters of the two Trios. The exquisitely somber third movement (Adagio espressivo) is played with solemnity that does not become lugubrious, Maestro Nézet-Séguin’s pacing centering on maintaining rhythmic control without sacrificing flexibility. The triumphant essence of the Beethovenian final movement (Allegro molto vivace) rockets through the Orchestra’s performance, and Maestro Nézet-Séguin underlines each thematic nod to the Symphony’s previous movements in the development and coda with discernment. The Second Symphony is one of Schubert’s finest works and in this performance sounds like it.
The ‘Rhenish’ is perhaps the best-known of Schumann’s Symphonies, its soulfulness arising from the composer’s reaction to a sojourn in the Rhineland that took on the connotations of a religious pilgrimage, and this performance by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe glows with atmospheric feeling. The tonal restlessness of the robustly heroic opening movement (Lebhaft) is meaningfully imparted by the Orchestra’s playing, and the delicate chromaticism of the music benefits from the blends among sections achieved by the musicians. The second (Sehr mäßig), third (Nicht schnell), and fourth (Feierlich) movements are energetically but eloquently played, the intrepid poise of the horns and trombones complemented by the diaphanous execution of string figurations. The influence of Mendelssohn is perceptible throughout the Third Symphony, but this only emphasizes Schumann’s originality. The final movement (Lebhaft) is lusty and laconic in turns, dancelike passages alternating with melodic units that seethe with terse vigor. Maestro Nézet-Séguin avoids easy effects, thereby also avoiding the banality that many conductors inflict upon the music, and his reading of the finale—and of the Symphony as a whole—grows from a personal connection with the score that integrates inwardness with dynamism. The Orchestra players follow his leadership with buoyancy that eschews the tired traditions that deaden many performances of this eminent score.
Among the symphonic works of 19th-Century composers, the four Symphonies of Robert Schumann occupy a seminal but easily underestimated place in the progress of Romanticism from the early blooms of Weber and Marschner to the late fruits of Schmidt and Schreker. They are challenging scores for musicians, conductors, and listeners, not in the sense that they make incredible technical demands but in that they require concentration that the more obvious felicities of other composers’ works forgo. Schumann’s Symphonies lavishly repay investments of dedication and contemplation, and the dividends earned by the performances of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and Yannick Nézet-Séguin on these discs are extravagant. Transcendence is its own kind of virtuosity, and these performances transcend habits and protocols. What remains after these musicians dismantle the preconceptions that burden this music is the intuition of Schumann.