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R Schumann: Symphonies Nos 1-4

Munich Philharmonic/Pablo Heras-Casado (Harmonia Mundi)

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

R Schumann
Symphonies Nos 1-4
Munich Philharmonic/Pablo Heras-Casado
Harmonia Mundi HMM902664.65   124:05 mins (2 discs)

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This set starts very well. Pablo Heras-Casado’s performance of the ‘Spring’ Symphony is fresh and exhilarating with moments of warmth and tenderness, but also with that nervous, slightly edgy quality which marks out Schumann’s music even when he’s at his most determinedly affirmative. The sense of form as something at the other end of the scale from monumentality – an adventure, with plenty of teasing surprises – is sustained compellingly.

Even though Schumann made efforts to clarify the structure of the Fourth in the familiar revised version recorded here, there’s still something Escher-like about it, and Heras-Casado brings that out well too. The rhythmic repetition in the first movement, which can tend to coagulate in some performances, remains expressively supple enough to keep the ear attentive – the clear and well-balanced recording helps.

Somehow, though, the Rhenish misses that sense of heightened joy in life (enthralling or alarming depending on your point of view) that ought to carry it from the white-water opening, through ensuing shadows, to the manically accelerating coda at the end. The Second Symphony – always the hardest to bring off – comes out of this least well. Having shown that he can make Schumann’s obsessive rhythmic repetition speak for itself in the first movement of the Fourth, Heras-Casado is far less successful in the first movement of No. 2. Schumann’s intense mental struggle in composing the Second Symphony comes across movingly in the John Eliot Gardiner’s superb cycle. If it doesn’t, as here, then a key ingredient is lacking and the music remains frustratingly opaque.

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Stephen Johnson