Schumann: Symphonies No. 1 "Spring" & No. 2 (SACD review)

Lawrence Foster, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. PentaTone Classics PTC 5186 326.

It's hard to knock anything by Robert Schumann (1810-1856), especially where the "Spring" Symphony is concerned. But I'll do it anyway. Schumann's First Symphony, composed and premiered in 1841, is a jubilant, ebullient, zestfully intoxicating work that should inspire in listeners the very best feelings of spring's new life and new hope. Indeed, under conductor Lawrence Foster and the Czech Philharmonic, it does much of this.  It's just that a good part of the performance is undermined by its live recording (which is at least mercifully free of audience noise and applause).

Recorded in Prague in 2007, the interpretation is quick paced and reasonably quick witted, yet it loses a lot of its joy within a veritable fog of hall reverberation and overactive musical bloom. I wonder if this veiling is partly the result of folding the rear channels into the front, because I listened only to PentaTone's hybrid Super Audio CD in the two-channel stereo mode. It's quite possible that in SACD surround sound, the sonics open up to greater clarity. As things stand, while I found the sound wanting, I found Foster's reading of the "Spring" Symphony spirited and lively, without always being too characterful; and I found the same to an even greater degree with the Second Symphony (1846).

For comparison purposes, I put on Wolfgang Sawallisch and the Dresden Staatskapelle (EMI) and Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra (also EMI), recordings made thirty and forty years earlier. Both recordings sounded better to my ears (the older Klemperer actually sounding the best), and both seemed far more colorful in describing the varying moods of the music.

I'd say if you have to have these symphonies in surround sound, the PentaTone is going to be your best, possibly your only, choice. But if you're after the best possible performances, the two EMI sets I mentioned, and others by Zinman (Arte Nova), Goodman (RCA), Kubelik (Sony), Muti (EMI), Gardiner (DG), and Dausgaard (BIS) are probably surer bets.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa