Schumann: Symphonies Nos. 1-4 (CD review)

Also, Overture, Scherzo & Finale. Wolfgang Sawallisch, Staatskapelle Dresden. EMI 7243 5 67771 2 5 (2-disc set).

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.)

Wolfgang Sawallisch
Sawallisch presents all four works in excellent readings, with an emphasis on structure that may remind one somewhat of Klemperer's readings of the symphonies. No. 1, the "Spring" Symphony, Sawallisch appropriately fills with joyous, youthful exuberance, all of it encompassed in the maestro's big, rock-solid style. No. 4 sounds equally filled with felicitous touches, its closing movement appearing for all the world like a continuation of the First Symphony's opening Andante. Then, the conductor keeps the Overture, Scherzo & Finale--which Schumann viewed as a mini symphony or "symphonette" as he called it--purposely more transparent in texture than the other large-scale pieces. So, disc one includes Schumann's lighter-weight material.

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:

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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