Schumann Symphonies revealed anew
There are no booklet notes per se to this release; instead, we have five-minute talks by Norrington hismelf. What we do have written down is the approach used here: non-vinrato, orchestral layout (antiphonal for both strings - with a row of dounle-basses at the back - and for brass), for example. Norrington's approach of authentic practices via modern orchestras is showcased here, and works beautifully. During Norrington’s thirteen years as chief conductor of the former Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra (which merged with its sister orchestra from Baden-Baden to form the SWR Symphonieorchester in 2016), he adhered to historically informed performance practice, applying the characteristics of period style to the modern symphony orchestra. Here's an example of one of those talks:
Robert Schumann’s four symphonies were composed between 1840 and 1853. The first movement of the First Symphony begins with brass fanfares (there's a story about a disastrous first rehearsal for thsi piece, but suffice it to say all's well that ends well!). Spring bursts out infectiously in the first movement proper, and Norrington's characteristic attention to rhythms is ther ein all its glory:
That Spring-like step extends to the thrid movement Scherzo, beautifully rustic and, in its dance rhthms, bucolic:
Norrington's trip-along finale is utter delight, as is the sudden interruption of horn calls (first one horn, then two, then with added trilling bird - flute - which goes off on its own avian cadenza, itself seguing beautifully back to the main theme):
We should remember that prior to this, Schumann had focused on piano and Lied repertoire. We should also at least consider the possibilty that his orchestration gets a bad rap: Norrington's approach clarifies Schumann's textures, convincing us perhaps that Mahler needn't have bothered to re-orchestrate them (there are recordings of Mahler's re-orchestrations conducted by Riccardo Chailly).
In his talk on the Second Symphony, Norrington talks about Mendelssohn's "reverence" for Bach in Mendelssohn's "Reformation" symphony, and Schumann's "intoxification" with the Master, explaining Schumann's use of the B-A-C-H motif (B flat - A - C - B natural) and the use of music from Bach's Musikalisches Opfer and Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte. Norrington also goes into the dual-sided nature of Shcumann's character, which the composer himself labelled "Florestan" and "Eusebius". Norrington calls the final joining of the Forestan and Eusebius elements of Schumann's personality in this symphony a "stunning piece of psycho-musical theatre".
The Second has always been the black sheep of Schumann's symphonies Unaccountably so - it is magnificent without perhaps the prevailing freshness of the First or the sheer grandeur of the Third or the compositional concentration of the Fourth. No less a conductor than Arturo Toscanini was fully aware of the stature of the Second, programing it repeatedly (there are several performances available on various labels). It stands high in Toscanini's discography as a triumph (his super-tight discipline paid huge dividends in this piece). But Norrington has a successful way, too, keeping the energy high throughout the first movement:
The first movement is expansive (nearly a quarter of an hour) and needs momentum, but also someone who truly understands the dynamics at work. Norrington now seems to have the balance of immediacy of excitement with long-term sructure in near-ideal balance. If Toscanini tends to make the Schoerzo second movement more mercuiral than Norrington here, I find Norrington just as expressive in the gorgeous Adagio espressivo:
Norrington's finest movement is the finale - we really hear the struggle of oppositing elements and their eventual reconciliation:
The Third Symphony, the so-called "Rhenish," is Schumann's most popular symphony, and with some justification - it is a magnificent, big-boned work of real majesty. Written in 1850, it was actually his last symphony, written in Düsseldorf. Norrington calles it a "nobke pillar" between Beethoven's "Eroica" and Brahms' Third, both of which have points of contact with this Schumann.
The bracing first movement, marked "Lebhaft" (lively) perhaps does not represnet Norrington at his finest. No doubting the easy sway of the second movement. This is marked "Sehr mäßig" very moderate and although labelled as a Scherzo certainly is not a traditional one:
The gentle, caressing woodwinds of the thrid movement seem to act as a loving prolongation of this before the great interpolated movement, inspired by a ceremony witnessed by Schumann in Cologne Cathedral:
Although Norrington's "Rhenish" does not knock Rafael Kubelík off top slot (for me) in this piece, the first two challenge most, The Fourth was written second and published last as his Op. 120 is what Norrington describes as his "Clara" symphony - and note that the YouTube versions claim a nickname of "Clara-Symphonie" for this piece!; Norrington also points to the symphony's cross-movement motivic correspondences, and also defends Schumann's orchestration - "they don't need altering, just playing well".
This is the 1841 Schumann Fourth - the first version of the piece, and as such lends this set extra value (Norrington recorded the later version with the London Classical Players). Interesting to note that John Eliot Gardiner's set includes both versions.
Norrington's performance of the Fourth holds much detail - I'd like more of an ominous feel to the trombone statements around four minutes into the first movement, as they seem a touch under-played here. It is however impossible to resist the gossamer lightness of Norrington's Romanza, taken at a perfect Andante, just as Schumann asks:
Intriguingly, in the Largo final section of the third movement, as the music moves to the finale, Norrington finds a Mahlerian expansiveness before the accelerando kicks in for a Schumann-meets-Mendelssohn, fleet-of-foot reading of the last movement:
The Fourth's (in its later incarnation) discography boasts such luminaries as Hermann Abendroth, Eugene Ormandy and, perhaps particularly, Guido Cantelli. For a light, breezy yet dramatic approach, Norrington is your man, though
I have to say Sir Roger's voice is remarkably compelling in the talks - he emerges as a wise and reassuring narrator. We are in safe, experienced hands. And reissues such as this allow us space for reappraisal. For a long time I found Norrington's approach difficult to come to terms with - willful, even. But these Schumann inetrpretations show a conductor who understands teh composer inside-out.