All products and recordings are chosen independently by our editorial team. This review contains affiliate links and we may receive a commission for purchases made. Please read our affiliates FAQ page to find out more.

The best recordings of Schumann's Third Symphony 'Rhenish'

Terry Williams grabs his oars, pushes his boat out and heads downstream as he admires the finest recordings of Schumann’s River Rhine-inspired masterpiece, 'Rhenish'

The best recordings of Schumann's Third Symphony 'Rhenish'
Published: February 16, 2022 at 5:06 pm

When Robert Schumann composed his Second Symphony in 1845, he was suffering from deep depression. His Third, the Rhenish, was completed in 1851 during a brief, stable period – a move from Dresden to Düsseldorf in 1850 as the city’s municipal music director boded well both for him and his even more celebrated pianist wife, Clara.

Advertisement

The ‘dark time’ of the Second is nowhere to be heard in the Third. ‘Ein Stück Leben am Rhein’ (‘a bit of life on the River Rhine’) is Schumann’s modest description of his five-movement symphony, and that ‘life’ includes the solemn Feierlich (‘ceremonial’) fourth movement in which Schumann visualises the recent elevation to cardinal of Archbishop von Geissel at Cologne Cathedral. But, like Beethoven’s Pastoralbefore it, the Rhenish is not merely a musical snapshot of rural or river life but a German Romantic symphony on a large scale.

The best recordings of Schumann's Third Symphony 'Rhenish'

Wolfgang Sawallisch (conductor)

Staatskapelle Dresden (1973)

EMI 567 7682

As the man says: ‘It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing’. Nobody swings into the midstream Rhine with more abandon than conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch. Lebhaft (‘lively’) is Schumann’s marking for the opening movement, but the orchestra also brings exuberance and heft, sweeping the listener along on a surging current of sound, and the glorious horn fanfare greets us like a shaft of sunlight. The Scherzo is appropriately bucolic (wonderful horns again). What follows is not a slow movement as such, but a Schumann innovation: a charming intermezzo, played here with deftness and refinement.

The glorious Dresden Staatskapelle sound really comes into its own in the Cologne Cathedral movement, where the three trombones make their first appearance, while the finale is brilliantly light on its toes, bringing Schumann’s Rhine journey to a rousing finish. There remains the perceived problem of the composer’s inability to orchestrate. Gustav Mahler, Michael Gielen and George Szell were among the composers and conductors who felt he needed a helping hand and so made their own revisions to the score, but Sawallisch simply trusts Schumann, and quite right he is too. The only miscalculation in the recording is its failure to allow the timpanist’s hard sticks to be heard fully. But it’s a small price to pay for what is a very special Rhenish, one which is difficult to imagine being surpassed.

Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (conductor)

Deutsche Radio
Philharmonie (2008)

Oehms Classics OC 708

‘Stan the Man’, as Skrowaczewski was known during his Hallé orchestra (one of the best orchestras in the world) days, delivers a performance of astounding energy – even he once described his Schumann conducting as ‘a bit crazy’. Just listen to his tearaway finale – this is no simple rustic dance. Poetry and nobility are not neglected, however, and the central movements are superbly done. A prolific composer himself, Skrowaczewski knows about orchestral balance, and that shows in a performance that, for all its flare, is also beautifully measured. The playing rivals the razor-sharp virtuosity that has made George Szell’s Cleveland Orchestra recording such a favourite, and for a combination of edge-of-the-seat excitement and vivid sound quality, Skrowaczewski takes some beating.

Robin Ticciati (conductor)

Scottish Chamber Orchestra (2014)

Linn CKD450

There’s a lot to be said for deploying smaller orchestral forces in the four Schumann symphonies. The front-runners in an ever-widening field in this respect are Robin Ticciati’s Scottish Chamber Orchestra (SCO) and Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s Chamber Orchestra of Europe, who both give Schumann’s textures a thorough spring clean. Fleet-footed and fresh, both would make an ideal entry point for first-time buyers and also for those with lingering doubts about Schumann the symphonist, but forced to choose I’d opt for Ticciati, whose exhilarating Rhenish has all the makings of a modern classic. The opening movement has ‘that swing’, and the SCO’s fabulous playing, especially its winds, is sheer delight, with superb timpani as well. Linn Records lets us hear it all in state-of-the-art SACD sound.

Rafael Kubelík (conductor)

Berlin Philharmonic (1964)

Deutsche Grammophon 477 8621

The Schumann symphonies are the lifeblood of the Berlin Philharmonic. However, when you explore the orchestra’s various recordings of the Rhenish, you will find that Herbert von Karajan’s obsession with surface sheen robs the symphony of its ruggedness. Simon Rattle, no doubt mindful of period practice, prefers a leaner sound and gives the wind voices more prominence, but an even more tempting option is Rafael Kubelík’s genial view of Rhineland life. Don’t expect the blazing theatricality of Szell or Skrowaczewski, as the Czech was the least flamboyant of great conductors. Instead, expect a lifetime’s love and understanding of the work. Illuminating both the ‘poet and peasant’ in the score, to borrow a phrase from Dvoπák, this account has lost none of its lustre and the sound quality is vintage Deutsche Grammophon.

And one to avoid

Advertisement

Even as a self-confessed Otto Klemperer groupie in most things German and symphonic, any enthusiasm that I can muster for his 1969 recording of the Rhenish Symphony is restricted to the Feierlich movement, which has all the gravitas you’d expect from the German conductor. Otherwise, it’s a bit of a slog, with a weary-sounding New Philharmonia Orchestra dutifully going through the motions. Unfortunately, this recording came ten years too late in Klemperer’s career.

Authors

Terry WilliamsJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Sponsored content