By John J. Puccio
Schumann wrote his Symphony No. 1 in B flat, Op. 38 “Spring” in 1841, shortly after he married Clara Wieck, herself a noted pianist and composer; and Felix Mendelssohn conducted the première. How’s that for help? As to its content, Schumann wrote to conductor Wilhelm Taubert saying, “Could you breathe a little of the longing for spring into your orchestra as they play? That was what was most in my mind when I wrote the symphony.... I would like the music to suggest the world’s turning green, perhaps with a butterfly hovering in the air, and then, in the Allegro, to show how everything to do with spring is coming alive...”
It's hard to knock anything by Schumann, especially where the "Spring" Symphony is concerned, but I'll do it anyway. Schumann's First Symphony should be a jubilant, ebullient, zestfully intoxicating work that inspires 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 at least some of this. The interpretation is relatively quick paced and reasonably quick witted, yet it loses some of its joy in Foster’s fairly unyielding direction. While everything is neatly in place, the ebb and flow of the music is somewhat stiff, lacking the graceful, fluid continuity we hear from conductors like Wolfgang Sawallisch and Rafael Kubelik. So, even though I found Foster's reading spirited and lively enough, I didn’t always find it too characterful.
Almost half a dozen years went by before Schumann would write his Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op. 61 in 1846. (In between time, he also completed the original version of what he would later publish as his Symphony No. 4.) Although Schumann was in poor health when he composed No. 2, the tone of the work is spiritually uplifting. Critics have praised the piece as sounding like a Beethovenian “triumph over fate/pessimism,” which is how Beethoven earlier had described himself.
The Symphony No. 2 begins with a measured introduction, giving way to a moderately paced Allegro that becomes more tumultuous as it proceeds. A Scherzo follows, brisk and playful, hinting something of the Baroque and possibly of Bach. Next is a slow and expressive Adagio, taking on the nature of an elegy. Then Schumann wraps things up with a very lively (“molto vivace”) Allegro that borrows something from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony “Ode to Joy.”
Recording producer Job Maarse and recording engineer Matthijs Ruijter recorded the album live at the Dvorak Hall of the Rudolfinum, Prague in October 2007. The disc is in hybrid SACD, meaning you can listen in two-channel or multichannel from an SACD player or in ordinary two-channel from any ordinary CD player. I listened in two-channel SACD from a Sony SACD player.
Pentatone first released the disc in 2008, and I suppose it has done well enough for them that they continue to offer it. For live sound, it’s pretty good, but it does have a bit too much hall reverberation for ultimate clarity. At least, it is mercifully free of audience noise and applause, which is remarkable given that the engineer did not mike it too closely. The perspective is from a modest distance, and the sound comes through refreshingly natural, if a tad soft for my liking. Dynamics are good, as we might expect from an SACD, but not exceedingly so, and frequency extremes are more than adequate.
For comparison purposes, I put on the aforementioned performance by Sawallisch and the Dresden Staatskapelle (EMI) as well as one by Otto Klemperer and the Philharmonia Orchestra (also on EMI), recordings made thirty and forty years earlier. Both of them sounded better to my ears than the Foster disc (with the older Klemperer recording sounding the best by far), and both of the older performances seemed more colorful than Foster’s in their delineation of the music’s varying moods. I know a lot of folks also rave about Karajan’s recordings on DG, and while I admit they are beautifully played, I have never been able to adjust to the sound of their over-pronounced high-end, which spoils my enjoyment of the music.
In the end, I'd say if you have to have these symphonies in modern, multichannel, digital surround sound, the Pentatone is going to be one of your better choices. However, if you're after the best performances, the two EMI sets I mentioned (Sawallisch and Klemperer) and others by Zinman (Arte Nova), Goodman (RCA, on period instruments), Kubelik (Sony), Muti (EMI), Gardiner (DG), and Dausgaard (BIS) are probably surer bets.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: