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

Lawrence Foster, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. Pentatone PTC 5186 326.

By John J. Puccio

During his relatively short lifetime, German composer and pianist Robert Schumann (1810-1856) managed to write four symphonies, one opera, and any number of piano works; and the symphonies didn’t come into being until late in the composer’s career. They became phenomenally successful and are now firmly entrenched in the basic classical repertoire. Maestro Lawrence Foster recorded all four of the symphonies during live performances in 2007 with the Czech Philharmonic, and we have them on two separate Pentatone SACD releases, the first one reviewed here.

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.”

Maestro Foster seems to loosen up more in the Second Symphony, and the music flows more easily, more freely. Maybe Foster just took time to warm up. It’s also possible that because the music of No. 2 appears more mature, more serious than the tenor of No. 1, Foster found it more approachable, more consistent with his generally straightforward manner. Whatever, I enjoyed Foster’s handling of No. 2 more than I did his reading of No. 1.

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:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 Jon 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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa