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Recordings

Robert Schumann: The Complete Symphonies (Mahler Edition)
10 Oct 2010

Schumann: The Complete Symphonies, Mahler Edition

Mahler’s well-known revisions of music he conducted include the four symphonies by Robert Schumann, and while these Retuschen have been performed from time to time, a recording of all four of them is now available from Decca.

Robert Schumann: The Complete Symphonies (Mahler Edition)

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Riccardo Chailly, conductor.

Decca 478 0037 [2CDs]

$17.99  Click to buy

Based on performances give between 2006 and 2007, specifically: Symphony no. 1 (13-16 February 2007); Symphony no. 2 (30 August to 9 September 2006); Symphony no. 3 (30 May to 2 June 2007; and Symphony no. 4 (26-28 October 2006). As such, the four symphonies offer a unified reading of the scores in the versions Mahler retouched, and which David Matthews describes in the liner notes included with this recording. Leaving aside for the moment some of the critical stances on Schumann’s orchestration, the present recording is valuable in conveying the scoring that Mahler used and in doing so suggesting some aspects of the later composer’s approach to these works. While revised the orchestration of these works, he did not revise them so drastically as to create new arrangements of the scores. Rather, he revised the brass and woodwind parts, as well as added indications for effects, like stopped horns, etc.; his efforts included adjusting dynamic markings, and other details that allowed him to interpret these symphonies from the podium. The result is a Mahlerian approach to these works, with various timbres and balances calling to mind sonorities Mahler himself would use. In this sense it requires a conductor familiar with both composers to bring these scores to life, and the esteemed Mahlerian Riccardo Chailly has done some impressive work in these performances.

The content of the pieces is wholly Schumann’s, but the orchestral touches reflect subtleties that Mahler wanted to bring out. As much as Mahler’s revisions clarify some passages, they also suggest the way he would approach the orchestra and, in a larger sense, the stance a conductor from the late nineteenth century would offer on these scores from the middle of the century. Some of the details reflect a reliance on woodwinds and brass that was not used or, in some cases, not possible during Schumann’s lifetime. In this sense, these scores are Schumann realized for a new generation, when the orchestral sound shifted from its reliance on the strings as the core sound to a more diversified timbral palette. A telling point for this is the first movement of Schumann’s Third Symphony “Rhenish,” in which the horns and woodwinds differ from the conventional way this piece is played. Mahler’s orchestral dialect articulates Schumann’s text well, and this movement is a fine example of the value of this recording.

Those familiar with the traditional scoring of the Second Symphony may find some palpable differences in Mahler’s scoring of that work, especially in the final movement. As moving as this Symphony is, it takes on different colors with the revision, which bears rehearing with some of the traditional recordings of the piece in the extant discogtraphy. A fine point of comparison is the venerable recording by George Szell, or even the more recent set of Schumann’s symphonies that Eliahu Inbal recorded. In this new recording of Mahler’s revision, it is also possible to hear Chailly’s perspective on these works, a factor which is yet another benefit of this set.

As to these performances, Chailly demonstrates well his concepts of Schumann’s symphonies and also his sense of style with Mahler’s music. With slow introductions, as with the first movement of the First Symphony (“Spring”), the contrast in tempo may seem drastic at first, but it works well as the energetic theme of the first section moves forward and contributes to the convey the emotion suggested in the score. In rendering the scoring of this piece Chailly brings a sense of lightness that fits the character of the music. Elsewhere, as in the slow movement of Schumann’s Second Symphony, the structure of the music emerges readily and persuasively. Likewise, the Third Symphony (“Rhenish”) works well, in this fresh and dynamic reading of the piece which is evident from the start. The solemnity suggested in the fourth movement (marked “Feierlich”) is in earnest, and never a caricature. In these movements and the others Chailly balances nicely the music of Schumann with the editorial stance of Mahler, while never allowing the pieces to become studied.

This set of Schumann’s symphonies has much to recommend on the part of both composers. Not merely a curiosity or a novelty, the revisions that Mahler himself believed were important are certainly given such credence in this set of authoritative readings by Chailly. Moreover, the playing by the Gewandhaus Orchestra is engaging throughout, with a supple, inviting sound that brings the score to life. The two-disc set is a convenient vehicle for this intriguing release.

James L. Zychowicz

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