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Schumann's Symphonies according to John Eliot Gardiner

By Eric Taver

LettrineARIS, 24 February 1999 - "Schumann revealed": this rather bombastic claim on the box set alludes no doubt to the rather poor opinion in which Schumann’s symphonies have long been held. It has often been said that Schumann’s talents were more appropriate to short piano pieces than to long symphonies, or that he didn’t really know how to orchestrate. These recordings on period instruments should certainly help in setting the record straight.

This having been said, what precisely do these recordings reveal that we have not already been aware of for several years? Ever since Harnoncourt made his recordings with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (Teldec) it has been obvious that a smaller ensemble is better suited to these symphonies than a "mammoth" symphony orchestra in terms of orchestral clarity. Many people will also be familiar with Philippe Herreweghe's recordings of the Second Symphony on "period instruments" with the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées (Harmonia Mundi). For many of us, it has long been apparent that using instruments similar to those used during Schumann’s lifetime allows the musicians to hear one another more easily when they are playing together.

Does the revelation then come from the music recorded in addition to the numbered symphonies: a Zwickau Symphony written by Schumann prior to the canonic four, and a first version of the Fourth Symphony? The early version of the Fourth has not been a scoop for many years (Teldec’s 1990 set with Masur and the London Philharmonic introduced it to a wide audience), no more than the Zwickau Symphony of 1832 that Neville Marriner had already recorded for Capriccio. Gardiner proposes then not a revelation, but a detailed and coherent map of a terrain already explored and well trod by others. The fact of having gathered all Schumann’s orchestral works, from the unfinished Zwickau through the last revision of the Fourth, and including the Overture, Scherzo and Finale and also the Konzertstück is, on the other hand, unique.

Bearing this in mind, there are two ways of listening to these discs. One is to take the professional musicians and maniacal critics approach: head buried in the score and pencil in hand, one notices the myriad of micro-details, phrasing, accents, rubatos that breathe fresh air over our notions of Schumann’s scores. For example, I appreciated the articulation at the very start of the Third Symphony, "Rhenish", which propels the entire movement, or the scherzo in the Fourth in which Gardiner opposes accents on and off the beat. The rhythmic snap, the development of Schumann’s style certainly need this almost excessive breadth: conductors have too often developed the habit of rounding off the edges under the pretext of a lazy "romanticism".

But there is also a second way in which to listen to these discs, yours perhaps, and certainly mine, when I just want to sit back, close my eyes and forget the score. And that is when, in these Gardiner performances, utter boredom suddenly sets in. And yet the orchestra is splendid -just listen to those horns in the Rhenish and the Konzertsück!

Gardiner bristles with musical intelligence, but it is constantly on show: his musicians follow their leader to the letter, but when do we get to feel that they are themselves living the music? They chisel the phrases, drawing on colors straight from the tube, with no light or shade. The orchestra has the same density throughout, never truly bright, never truly powerful, never concerned by the doubt that permeates Schumann’s music. Take the adagio of the Second Symphony, for example, one of Schumann’s most sublime pages. Here, Gardiner's rendering is perfectly glacial. Where, then, is the revelation? That listening to this music should not send the slightest shiver down my spine? That my eyes shouldn’t shed the smallest tear?

No, there is nothing in this Archiv box set, not the tiniest echo, however fleeting, to conjour up Bernstein's electricity (Sony), Szell's obsession (Sony), Karajan's suave hand (DGG) or Sawallisch's precision (EMI).

Schumann Symphonies - John Eliot Gardiner - deutsche grammophon

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Complete Symphonies: Symphonies nos 1 - 4. Symphony in G Minor, Zwickau;
Overture, Scherzo and Finale;
Konzertstück for four horns.
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
John Eliot Gardiner
, conductor.
Archiv 457 591-2 (3 CD).

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