For long regarded as a lower grade symphonist by sniffy critics of the past, Robert Schumann’s orchestral output has been reassessed thanks to illuminating period aware performances that have aerated his supposedly thick orchestration and revealed a timbral spectrum that was obscured by the overlay of late-19th-century orchestral technique.
Conductors on the traditional side have overcome problems with textual tampering while revelling in the weighty sound at their disposal, so it’s no surprise that Sir Simon Rattle chooses to sit on that particular fence considering the character of his orchestral forces. Despite the essay espousing the Berliner Philharmoniker’s long tradition of Schumann performance, today’s orchestra sounds very different to earlier incarnations with a vibrant transparency and a responsive flexibility that allows the ensemble to turn on a dime – a long way from the luxurious juggernaut of yesteryear. The string sound, while still luxuriant, is exquisitely focused and supple while the wind section is predictably magnificent, boasting starry names such as Emmanuel Pahud and Albrecht Mayer.
Symphonies 1 & 4 (here in its original 1841 form) inhabit a Mendelssohnian sound world that suits Rattle’s approach and for me the fourth symphony is the standout performance of the set. The aforesaid strings, with their miraculously wide dynamic range varying from delicate brushwork to bold swathes of colour in the first movement, and turning a sinuous line in the trio of the scherzo, have a fine swagger before a superbly judged transition into the triumphantly dispatched finale.
“Performances are superb, in fine sound and the linen-bound packaging is über-luxurious”
The under-rated Second Symphony is a little short-changed by Rattle’s calorie-concious interventionist approach; the obsessive Scherzo cleanly executed but certain phrasing mannerisms are distracting, the great soaring climax of the slow movement seems earthbound and the finale doesn’t drive home as it should. However I have no such qualms for the Rhenish with the orchestra pulling out all stops and delivering a thrilling rendition in the Romantic tradition with many moments of breath-taking beauty – my, oh my, those horns!
It surprised me that the Berliner Philharmoniker should launch its house label with a set of these particular works when there are so many fine recordings already available, although I’m sure touring merchandise was a factor; I hope future releases might indulge us with some of Rattle’s more left-field repertoire – some Szymanowski please! That said these are superb performances in fine sound and the linen-bound packaging is über-luxurious. A bluray offers the HD video filmings of the performance with a bonus interview with Sir Simon, behind the scenes footage and a taste of their Digital Concert Hall streaming service.
Buy this album on the iTunes Store: Robert Schumann: Symphonien 1-4 – Berlin Philharmonic & Sir Simon Rattle