I first bought these four symphonies with the late conductor and pianist Wolfgang Sawallisch just shortly after he recorded them in 1972. I instantly fell in love with the performances, but I thought the sound was rather obscure, wallowing, I felt, in excessive hall reverberation, details clouded and fogged over. A few years later I found and bought an imported set of the LPs pressed in Germany, which rendered them in slightly clearer but still rather veiled sound. That set sufficed until EMI transferred the recordings to CD in 1988 in their Studio line. This time, I found the sound substantially improved, but it still retained a small degree of veiling that bothered me.
Which brings us to the present set. In 2002 EMI reissued all four symphonies plus the Overture, Scherzo & Finale in a two-disc "Great Recordings of the Century" set remastered in their ART (Abbey Road Technology) format. The sound appeared a jot smoother and a tad clearer yet, making it the best transfer of these imposing interpretations I had yet encountered. But, who knows? Now that Warner Classics own the rights to EMI recordings, maybe they'll reissue them yet again in America (as they have, apparently, in Japan--in SACD, no less), and we'll be able to hear the master tapes better than ever.
Anyway, EMI wisely chose to bundle the pieces in the order Schumann wrote them, with Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4 on the first disc, along with the Overture, and Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 on the second disc. (No. 4 may have a later number, but Schumann actually wrote it second. It came by its present designation because Schumann made extensive revisions to it later.)
Disc two starts with the Second Symphony, the more somber of the lot and the longest the composer wrote, continuing with the most complex piece, the Third or "Rhenish" Symphony ("Life Along the Rhine"). It is this latter work (along with the joyous First) that perhaps best exemplifies what the man was capable of doing. The Third appears the most unified of the four symphonies, especially under Sawallisch, and in many ways the most memorable in its grand, expansive motifs.
Sawallisch has the measure of each symphony, seldom imposing his any overt idiosyncrasies on them, beyond his own sense of ultimate structure, allowing the music to flow naturally and fully. The Dresden State Orchestra seems the perfect choice of orchestras to play it, too, Dresden being Schumann's home for some of the years preceding his death, besides their being one of the world's great musical ensembles.
At its modest price these days, particularly when one considers its availability used, this EMI set seems almost too good to pass up.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: