Schumann - Symphonies 1 & 4
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Cat No: MYR028
Number of Discs: 1
Release Date: 21st August 2020
WorksSymphony no.1 in B flat major, op.38 'Spring'
Symphony no.4 in D minor, op.120 (1841 version)
1Symphony No.1 in B flat, op.38 ‘Frühling’ (1841): 1. Andante un poco maestoso – Allegro molto vivace
2Symphony No.1 in B flat, op.38 ‘Frühling’ (1841): 2. Larghetto
3Symphony No.1 in B flat, op.38 ‘Frühling’ (1841): 3. Scherzo. Molto vivace
4Symphony No.1 in B flat, op.38 'Fruhling' (1841): 4. Allegro animato grazioso
5Symphony No.4 in D minor, op.120 (1841 version): 1. Andante con moto – Allegro di molto
6Symphony No.4 in D minor, op.120 (1841 version): 2. Romanza. Andante
7Symphony No.4 in D minor, op.120 (1841 version): 3. Scherzo. Presto
8Symphony No.4 in D minor, op.120 (1841 version): 4. Largo – Finale. Allegro vivace
The First Symphony, actually composed in the depths of winter, positively bursts with the joys of Spring, although Schumann wisely suppressed his original descriptive movement titles, allowing the music to speak for itself. Its successful Leipzig premiere under Felix Mendelssohn on 31 March 1841 even won the approval of Schumann's crusty father-in-law, Friedrich Wieck. The D minor Symphony, however, had a more problematic genesis, its revolutionary cyclic design baffling the audience at its premiere on 6 December that year, and the performance was overshadowed by the appearance on stage at the same concert, individually and together, of Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt. Schumann withdrew the work, and it was only ten years later that he returned to it, subjecting the outer movements in particular to extensive revisions and reorchestration, adding depth but also weight and unwieldiness to the Symphony while tightening its cyclic elements. It was this revision that was eventually published as ‘No.4’. Johannes Brahms was among the first to declare his strong preference for the original version, and in recent years a number of conductors, including Goodman, Mackerras, Gardiner and Holliger, have championed its cause, sometimes alongside the 1851 revision.
Now Roth and his orchestra make a further excellent case for the 1841 version of the D minor Symphony, and it makes the ideal coupling for the 'Spring' Symphony: lithe, lean, alive with energy, and presenting two sides of the same coin. The First Symphony receives a particularly joyous performance: with minimal vibrato from the strings and what sounds to be narrow-bore brass and incisive timpani, the textures are wonderfully transparent, the tempi energetic, often urgently propulsive, uncovering dazzling and often overlooked details along the way, as in the first movement's development section. The opening fanfare is bracing but not overbearing, the woodwind solos in the introduction beautifully lit, the Allegro itself buoyant and overflowing with life. Fortes make impact without swamping detail, while softer passages are exquisitely shaded, and the movement's closing pages are thrillingly paced.
The Larghetto second movement has rarely sounded lovelier, the interplay of light and shade superbly handled, while the following Scherzo has its Beethovenian demonic side balanced by a quintessentially Schummanesque grace. As for the finale, Roth allows the music to flow at just the right pace, animated but still graceful, the phrases wonderfully supple, the tuttis forthright and infectiously joyous, capping a performance that's both uplifting and life-enhancing.
In the Fourth Symphony, one soon becomes aware of how many qualities it shares with the First, while simultaneously inhabiting its own distinctive word. Textures are again crystal-clear, but the pared-down orchestration (as compared with the 1851 revision) doesn't once feel threadbare, and Roth again has a way of bringing out detail that other conductors often miss. This lean but vital soundworld goes hand-in-glove with the Gürzenich Orchestra’s stylish playing, so that even in the more portentous minor-key passages there’s a feeling of lightness and air. The second movement Romanza is at the heart of this performance, the central episode with its heavenly violin solo surely a tribute to Clara, the outer passages seemingly speaking of legendary times.
The Scherzo is thoroughly gripping, the pacing urgent but actually not that fast (Roth achieves urgency through balance and articulation rather than mere speed), and there’s even some tastefully deployed, teasing rubato. The transition to the Finale is again superbly done, horns, trumpets and trombones splendidly expansive and grandiose, before the Allegro bursts to life. Here it’s the delicacy and nimbleness, both of Schumann’s scoring and of the Cologne players, that is the real wonder, though the snarling interjections of the development section are not undersold. If you haven’t yet been persuaded of the 1841 version’s merits, you need to hear this recording: expertly shaped, full of the spirit of early Romanticism, and a truly radical design that influenced Liszt, Franck, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius and many more. If it had received as persuasive a performance as this at its premiere, Schumann may well have left the score alone. Coupled with that joyous First, it adds up to one of the most exciting Schumann discs in years, a triumph for Roth and his musicians.
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