Album review: Here’s Schumann for ya! – Roth and the Gürzenich Orchestra own Symphonies 1 & 4 on their new Myrios disc

The symphonies of Robert Schumann are to be counted among the most compelling orchestral works of the 19th century. Profoundly honest and astonishingly original, these riveting scores carry on the legacy of Beethoven in an absolutely remarkable way. Alongside Berlioz, Schumann was the most fascinating symphonic thinker of the first half of the century, combining intricate dramaturgy with a compelling grasp of form.

If we set aside the unfinished scores of Sinfonia per il Hamlet (1831-32) and Zwickau Symphony (1832-33), Schumann’s symphonic journey was begun in 1841, with the premieres of both the Spring Symphony and Symphony in D minor. In many ways, these two works are polar opposites, approaching the idea of a symphony from two fundamentally different perspectives. 

In contrast to the countless recordings of the Beethoven and Brahms cycles, the Schumann symphonies have been put to disc far less frequently. Maybe the tide has been turning over the past couple of years, with noteworthy releases of the complete cycles by the Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle in 2014, the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir John Eliot Gardiner in 2019 as well as Staatskapelle Dresden and Christian Thielemann in 2019, to be joined by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel in 2021.

This year, the Gürzenich Orchestra and their Principal Conductor François-Xavier Roth joined the line-up, with their astonishing recoding of Symphonies 1 and 4 on Myrios Classics. Recorded in December 2018 and June 2019, the first SACD album is to be continued with a second volume, recorded in due time, depending on the programming possibilities under the COVID-19 counter-measures. 

For Schumann the symphonist, his discovery of the autograph manuscript of Franz Schubert’s Great Symphony in C major (1825-26) upon a visit to Ferdinand Schubert,the late composer’s brother, on New Years Day 1839, provided the key impetus for entering the symphonic realm. 

Thrilled by the hitherto unknown score, Schumann quickly arranged a belated world premiere in Leipzig, with Mendelssohn conducting the Gewandhausorchester on 21 March 1839.

”[The Symphony] opened up to me all the ideals of my life. It is the greatest instrumental work to have been written since Beethoven…It spurred me on again to attempt a symphony”, Schumann declared in a letter to his friend to Ernst Adolf Becker.

And so it was, that Schumann sketched the Symphony No. 1 in B flat major, Op. 38 in four days in January 1841, finishing the orchestral score four weeks later, on 20 February. The first performance was given by the Gewandhausorchester, with Mendelssohn conducting, on 31 March. The Spring Symphony was enthusiastically received, encouraging Schumann to new forays into the symphonic form.

Cast in four movements and scored for an orchestra of duple winds, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, triangle and strings, the symphony is rooted in vivid orchestral dramaturgy. Schumann had originally written titles for each movement, but these were withdrawn when the full score was published in 1853.

With or without titles, the Spring Symphony is nevertheless an essentially dramatic score. The opening movement is augured with an andante un poco maestoso fanfare for trumpets and horns, echoed by the full orchestra. Following the radiant opening, the orchestra surges back into wintry chills for nine bars, before sunlit again prevails.   

In the movement proper, launched after the thirty-eight-bar introduction and marked allegro molto vivace, the vernal glow dispels those last frosty nights, and thus the spring is come. 

Coloured by timpani and triangle, the orchestral fabric is abundant with astounding timbral hue. Driven by incessant rhythmic energy, the movement builds up to a tremendous burst of joy in the closing bars. 

Principal Condutor Fraçois-Xavier Roth and the Gürzenich Orchestra onstage at their Cologne home. © Holger Talinski

For the opening fanfare to the final chord, the Gürzenich Orchestra and Roth provide a top-class performance. Alight with instrumental colour and propelled by well-chosen tempi, the movement yields to a wonderful symphonic drama. Beautifully paced by Roth, the architecture of the movement is laid out admirably, giving rise to a fabulous musical journey.

After the whirlwind-of-an-opening, larghetto slow movement ensues, with its contemplative twilight shades. Instead of a light-wight interlude, Schumann comes up with a movement both vividly picturesque and thoroughly introspective. An apt contrast to the vehement first movement, the larghetto is the heart of the symphony. 

Roth and the Gürzenich Orchestra convey the emotional landscape of the movement with sensitivity and fine detail. Be it those essential horn semiquavers or the airy winds, combined with the ever-busy strings, not forgetting the astounding trombone cadenza midway thorough the music, the orchestral playing is exemplary throughout, resulting in the most rewarding experience. 

The scherzo launches into full speed, with Roth’s well-adjusted balance highlighting the marvellous sonorities of the Gürzenich strings. As the movement unfolds, the orchestral dialogue between the glistening winds, earthy brass, dexterous strings and propelling timpani grow to a musical vista par excellence. 

With careful attention to detail, the scherzo is a case in point of Schumann’s ear for dazzling orchestration.

Rounding off the symphony in style, the allegro animato e grazioso finale is brought to life with thrilling drama and riveting musical brilliance. One can only admire the ever-eloquent phrasing of the Gürzenich players, as the music heads towards it joyful conclusion. 

The interplay of light and shadow is carried out with gorgeous orchestral virtuosity under Roth, yielding to a profoundly cathartic experience.

François-Xavier Roth portrait by © Holger Talinski.

Following the successful premiere of the Spring Symphony,Schumann begun sketching his next forays to the genre the Overture, Scherzo and Finale, Op. 52 (1841) and the Symphony in D minor (1841). While the former was completed within less than two months, the latter had a more complicated birth. 

Although the Symphony in D minor was sketched within a week, the orchestration was completed only in the beginning of October. Both works were premiered on 4 December, as a part of a long and varied programme, with Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt as soloists (and in terms of audience, the main attractions). 

While the premiere performance came out less than ideal, mainly due to the lengthy programme and the absence of Mendelssohn from the podium, the Symphony on D minor was still better received than is often credited. 

However, having just released the score of Schumann’s First Symphony, Breitkopf & Härtel was reluctant to publish the Symphony in D minor so soon after. Thus the manuscript lingered in the composer’s drawer for ten years, until he presented it again in Düsseldorf in a thoroughly revised guise.

As is well-known, the 1851 version was the one eventually published as Symphony No. 4 in d minor, Op. 120. The original materials of the 1841 version were trusted to Brahms by Clara Schumann. In 1888 they sought to find a conductor to revive the first version. Eventually in October 1889, upon Brahms’s suggestion, Franz Wüllner, the conductor of the Gürzenich Concerts in Cologne, gave a successful second performance of the 1841 version.

The subsequent publication of the score, without Clara Schumann’s consent, resulted in a feud between her and Brahms. Though eventually reconciled, the affair was never fully forgotten. 

In the end, having the 1841 version around has given the posterity the chance to hear the symphony in its original guise. While the final version might be preferred by many, the alluring transparency of the original scoring makes the 1841 version a worthwhile alternative. 

Schumann’s concept for the Symphony in D minor was to write an one-movement work, with the four movements of the traditional scheme fused together into one continuous whole, with thematic material recurring in different shapes and guises throughout the symphony. 

Thus the symphonic arch opens and closes with full-blown allegros, both primed with slow introductions. In between a short, lyrical andante and an intense scherzo are heard. In terms of character, the score is a wondrous mixture of symphonic design and song-like melodic flow. 

Gürzenich Orchestra and François-Xavier Roth in performance. © Holger Talinski

On the new disc, Roth and his Gürzenich musicians totally own the symphony with their outstanding performance. Ever clad in the most beautifully phrased musical lines, the symphony is rooted in endless melody. The symphonic architecture is laid out in the most compelling manner, with transformations from one section to another realized in an organic manner, resulting in a truly one-movement arch. 

Recorded with exemplary clarity and warmth, combined with excellent spatial focus, the new Myrios Classics album is one of the most notable releases of 2020, both in terms of performance end engineering. The second volume will be eagerly awaited. 

Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne            

François-Xavier Roth, conductor

Robert Schumann: Symphony No. 1 in B flat Major ”Spring”, Op. 38 (1841)

Robert Schumann: Symphony in D minor (1841) 

Recorded at the Kölner Philharmonie on 16-18 December 2018 (Symphony in D minor) and 16-18 June 2019 (Symphony No. 1)

Myrios Classics MYR028 (2020), 1 SACD

© Jari Kallio

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