Schumann: Symphonies Nos. 2 & 3 (CD review)

Michael Gielen, SWR Baden-Baden and Freiburg Symphony Orchestra. Hanssler Classic CD 93.259.

German composer and critic Robert Schumann (1810-1856) only wrote four symphonies, and he wrote them in a hurry, perhaps with the supreme self-confidence of knowing one's talent. Yet it seems doubly impressive when you consider how sick the man was most of his life. Even so, the symphonies have become staples of the Romantic repertoire. More important here, maestro Michael Gielen offers them up in fresh, exciting, dynamic style, making them come alive anew, old warhorses or not.

Things begin with the Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Op. 61, which the composer wrote in 1845 after a fit of melancholy. You'd never know it. Gielen gets the music underway with a most energetic Allegro. In fact, it may be more sprightly than Schumann proposed, but Gielen certainly makes a good case for it. Although Gielen doesn't move the Scherzo along quite as fast, there is still much sparkle in it. Nevertheless, it is in the sublime Adagio that the conductor brings out the best in Schumann's poetic vision. Then the symphony ends in commanding fashion with a spirited finale, again with Gielen in full control.

Schumann wrote his five-movement Symphony No. 3 in E Flat Major, Op. 97, "Rhenish," in 1850 in an apparent burst of enthusiasm after arriving with his wife and family in a new city, with a new job and new lodgings. Despite a mis-numbering of the symphonies somewhere along the way, his Third Symphony is actually his fourth and last symphonic work. It displays a greater maturity of themes, more creative tunes, and more-soaring rhapsodies than the Second.

Gielen takes the opening motif and flies with it, making its familiar strains sound as grand and eloquent as ever before. The second-movement Scherzo creates a wonderfully light, breezy tone; the third movement a charmingly bucolic atmosphere; the fourth movement a stately and solemn mood; the work concluding on an entirely uplifting note. Gielen admits in the booklet note that he feels "being truly faithful to the composer's intentions on a higher plane means to change the score in order to clarify the shape and sense of the music." Whatever Gielen did to improve the music, it appears to have worked, as these are among the most-refreshing and invigorating interpretations one can find.

The two symphony recordings derive from different sessions with the SWR Symphony Orchestra, the Symphony No. 2 from 2010 and the Symphony No. 3 from 2002. The Second Symphony, with its relatively close miking, exhibits a good deal of transparency and a fairly strong frequency range and impact.  However, it is also a trifle bright and forward in the lower strings. The Third Symphony is slightly more distant, more recessed, yet smoother and more natural overall.

I'm not sure I'd want Gielen's recordings to displace my personal favorites in these works--Sawallisch and the Dresden Staatskapelle (EMI), Klemperer and the Philharmonia (EMI), Goodman and the Hanover Band (RCA), or Norrington and the London Classical Players (EMI)--but Gielen's performances can take a place among their company. They are quite lovely, moving, and lyrical.


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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