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Posted at 11:14 AM ET, 12/ 1/2010

Schumann on CD

By Mark J. Estren

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

By Mark J. Estren  | December 1, 2010; 11:14 AM ET
Categories:  CD reviews  
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Very excellent review. Having played all of these works I prefer a softer, less overwhelming brass sound, although the strings can always be heard in these wonderful performances.

Posted by: pronetoviolins | December 1, 2010 12:15 PM | Report abuse

I have myself a CD to recommend, although this is an older recording and hard to find. But I believe it's worth finding.

Those who attended the last concert of the previous season (the Juraj Valcuha / Jennifer Koh one) may have read in the program that the violinist who introduced the Szymanowski concerto (no. 1) to the NSO audiences was a lady called Wanda Wilkomirska. Her recording was also listed as a reference in the suggested recordings sections of the program.

It was a recording that I long wanted to purchase, and now that I have finally listened to it, I can only say that it's indeed the best version of the piece that I had ever heard. Szymanowski's music is all about colors, and Wilkomirska and the conductor, the underrated Witold Rowicki, extract those colors better than anyone else that I know. The violinist has a large sound and is not afraid to use the vibrato; this is definitely "old-school playing", and none for the worse.

Sadly, the second violin concerto, also recorded by the artists, is not included in the set fo two CDs, even though there was enough space for it. What is included is concertos by Shostakovich (no. 2), Wieniawski, and Khachaturian, in all instances the conductor being again Rowicki, except for the Shostakovich work which is lead by Wojciech Michniewski. I detest Khachaturian's music, and while I wouldn't mind listening to Wieniawski's work from time to time, I can't really compare it with other versions since it's not really a favorite. Impossible however not to be impressed by the way the violinist plays the "à la Zingara" finale.

The Shostakovich however is a must for anyone who loves this work, somewhat overshadowed by its predecessor. This is simply a great performance.

The recordings were made in the 60s and 70s. The orchestra (the Polish National Symphony) is not the most, well, polished in the world; indeed some may object to the watery sound of the horns for example. The CDs are hard to find. Even so, I believe this is a must recording for anyone who loves Szymanowski, Shostakovich, or simply great violin playing.

And I will end by recommending another great and underrated lady violinist from Eastern Europe: the Bulgarian Stoika Milanova. Albena Danailova and Vesko Eschkenazy (concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra) did not come out of nowhere...

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | December 1, 2010 3:36 PM | Report abuse

Excellent call on Stoika Milanova. Her recording of both Prokofiev concerti, now some 30+ years old, is the best integral recording of these works. Her recordings of the Brahms violin sonatas, from the same vintage and, I believe, with her sister as the pianist, have much to recommend, as well.

Posted by: 74umgrad1 | December 1, 2010 4:09 PM | Report abuse

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