Schumann on CD
Schumann: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Grzegorz Nowak. RPO. (2 CDs).
Schumann: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie conducted by Frank Beermann. CPO. (2 SACDs).
This year’s bicentennial of Schumann’s birth has spawned reconsiderations of his music, some new editions and a number of versions of his four symphonies. These two recent symphony cycles are a study in contrasts: Nowak’s generally slower-paced and more massive, Beermann’s more detail-oriented and with a fresher sound.
The symphonies actually sound good in both interpretations – Schumann admits of multiple effective readings – but Beermann, who uses a new edition by Joachim Draheim, generally gets the better of things.
In No. 1, “Spring,” Beermann’s first movement is bright-sounding and enthusiastically played, with wide dynamic range and a quick coda; the Scherzo features good brass highlights, with a slow first trio and speedy second one; and the finale is all geniality. Nowak is a touch flaccid, especially in the second movement; and the Scherzo’s second trio and entire finale both sound rushed – this is the only symphony in which Nowak’s reading is faster than Beermann’s.
No. 2 opens with the most problematic movement in the cycle: This Allegro, ma non troppo can easily drag. Beermann’s approach combines a very slow introduction to the movement with a speedy main section and broad dynamic range. Nowak adheres more closely to the designated tempo, but as a result the movement sometimes flags. Both offer quick and lively Scherzos. In the Adagio espressivo, Beermann is very expressive indeed, but a bit fast – and his reading of the finale is very spirited and fleet-footed. Nowak is more ponderous, and twice in the finale introduces very intrusive rubato that unwarrantedly slows everything down.
In No. 3, the five-movement “Rhenish,” Beermann is resolutely upbeat and buoyant in the first movement; the second and third flow well; the more serious fourth has appropriate weight; and the finale is truly rousing, especially the coda. Nowak’s version is more pedestrian, with
brass not always as prominent as it can be and a rather hesitant Scherzo – although the finale has good bounce.
No. 4, though, sounds more effective in Nowak’s version. This is the second symphony Schumann wrote, but he significantly revised it a decade later; hence the numbering. Brahms, for one, preferred the earlier version, which is more lightly scored and has some elegant instrumental touches that are obscured by the doublings and more massive sound of the revision. But if one accepts the revised version as the “right” one, as both Nowak and Beermann do, the warmth and full sound of Nowak’s performance are winning. His rendition strides forth strongly and features a warm and lovely violin solo in the Romanze, a well-contrasted Scherzo, and a very effective finale with excellent pacing and flow.
There is nothing to dislike in Beermann’s performance except for a slightly too fast Romanze that makes the solo violin less effective. Textures are clear and clean, the Scherzo is quick and strongly accented, and the finale is bright and strong, with especially impressive timpani. It would be interesting to hear Beermann conduct the first version of this symphony.
Listeners will not really go wrong with either of these sets – or, for that matter, with both. Their different, equally valid approaches simply communicate different things about Schumann as symphonist.
--Mark J. Estren
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