Schumann symphonies pleasantly surprise but Mendelssohn steals the show.

Sydney Opera House, Concert Hall
11 February 2015


Robert Schumann is not a composer who readily comes to mind when thinking of the great symphonists. His piano works and lieder have long been regarded as some of the greatest accomplishments for those forces in the canon of western classical music, but while his talent for song is undoubtable his abilities when handling orchestral resources have often been dismissed. However Schumann is enjoying something of a renaissance for his symphonic works at present, with three excellent recordings of all four of Schumann’s much-maligned symphonies released in the past six months.

SSO’s Chief Conductor David Robertson is also doing his part to champion these neglected pieces with the opening performance of the orchestra’s 2015 season featuring Symphonies 1 and 2, the first of two programmes this month presenting Schumann’s complete symphonic cycle. Sharing the billing with Schumann was his close friend and artistic collaborator Felix Mendelssohn and his exquisitely crafted Violin concerto. Mendelssohn’s influence on Schumann, and in particular his symphonies cannot be overstated. As conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra he conducted the premieres of both works in the evening’s programme, and Schumann’s music is peppered with small gestures and musical nods in tribute to his friend. It’s typically intelligent programming from Robertson: the close fraternal bond shared by these two composers, both personally and artistically, makes their music ideally sympathetic companions.

A reduced size ensemble, closer to the scale of the orchestra Mendelssohn would have led in Leipzig 160 years before, began the evening’s program in reverse chronological order with Schumann’s Symphony No.2 in C. Completed in 1846 this work is full of narrative inference that palpably draws on Schumann’s struggle with mental illness. The composer wrestled with manic-depression that eventually developed into a crippling full-scale mental breakdown in 1844, and it seems that through this symphony, written during his recovery, Schumann hoped to express a sense of victory over the bleak and disturbing forces that had almost destroyed him.

Hearing the Sydney Symphony Orchestra so deftly tackling this lyrical, emotive and highly inventive work it’s hard to understand why Schumann’s symphonies have been so underrated in the past. Perhaps his position within the lineage of German composers, rubbing shoulders with Beethoven on one side and Brahms and Mahler on the other make for an unflattering comparison? It is true that Schumann was far less prolific in his symphonic output than some of his countrymen, and the ambition of his four symphonies cannot match the scale and innovation of the other great Germanic symphonists, but there is passionate, expressive beauty paired with a harmonic wizardry, particularly evident in the second symphony that more than justifies regular outings for these works.

One of the criticisms most often made of Schumann’s symphonies is that the orchestration lacks finesse but in the hands of Robertson this consensus seems wholly unwarranted. With characteristic charisma and affable enthusiasm, Robertson is able to extract a nimble flexibility out of the rather economical orchestral palette at his disposal. Robertson is particularly lauded for his interpretations of contemporary repertoire (he added a Grammy Award for his recording with the St Louis Symphony Orchestra of John Adams’ City Noir to his trophy cabinet on Monday) and he applies the same kind of probing enquiry and precision needed for more avant garde scores to this Romantic work. It is this ability to precisely control the nuanced timbre and shifting character of the music that really brings the narrative quality of this work to the fore. Schumann hurls musical ideas in quick succession, but Robertson’s expert handling of the orchestra ensures total clarity, such as in the capricious 2nd movement that in the blink of an eye dissolves from a blisteringly fizzy scherzo into a gentle chorale. In the symphony’s finale Schumann layers multiple motifs: the opening movement’s bucolic brass melody in octaves; the principal theme from the final movement; a driving accompaniment underneath. It’s a crowded musical statement, but Robertson’s masterful connection with his orchestra allows this triumphant climax to sing.

Having heard a work born out of Schumann’s darkest hours next in the programme was a piece infused with youthful ambition, and young love. Symphony No1 in B flat was hurriedly written in just a matter of weeks, and its subtitle Frühlingssehnsucht, which roughly translates as Spring longing, is reflective of the optimism, exuberance and “vernal passion” Schumann felt at the start of his marriage to Clara Wieck. 

The piece was written with a quill pen that Schumann found near Beethoven’s grave in Vienna, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that this piece owes a debt to Beethoven, with flavours of the sixth ‘Pastoral’ Symphony’s open strings and the third ‘Eroica’ Symphony’s off-beat accents. Schumann was also heavily guided by Mendelssohn, but despite this assistance the orchestration is in places rather unflattering. Robertson applied the same expert control he displayed during the Symphony No2 and largely he managed to paste over the cracks.

However while this concert might have been conceived as a tribute to Schumann, it was his friend Mendelssohn who stole the show, with German violinist Christian Tetzlaff’s rendition of one of the finest concertos ever written for the instrument. The popularity of Mendelssohn’s much-loved concerto is undisputable, and with its seductive blend of virtuosic fireworks contrasted with beautifully lyrical passages its position as one of the most cherished of all concertos is well deserved.

Tetzlaff embodies the Romantic passion of Mendelssohn’s music with the dramatic physicality of a rock star, but his fearlessly unrestrained tempi, which at times left the orchestra hanging on by their fingertips, sometimes exchanged accuracy for flash. Nonetheless this element of danger, combining break-neck speed with a creatively free expression made for some ferociously exciting music making. Tetzlaff’s fast, taught vibrato and confident swagger injected a particularly modern, muscular vibe into the music that made it crackle with electricity. This was especially evident as Tetzlaff hurled us headfirst into a hurricane of musical pyrotechnics in the final movement. His perfectly effervescent, smoldering delivery captured the sheer joy and exhilaration that has kept this masterpiece filling concert halls for over 160 years. 

Sydney Symphony Orchestra perform Schumann 1 & 2 and the Mendelsshon Violin Concerto with Christian Tetzlaff until 14 February.