Symphonies Nos 1-4
Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim
Deutsche Grammophon 486 2958 131:06 mins (2 discs plus Blu-ray)
As Alfred Brendel said, great music is greater than it can ever be played. The new brand of lean, nervous, quirky Schumann, developed in the wake of John Eliot Gardiner’s stunning DG set, has done a lot to rehabilitate this complicated composer as a major symphonist. But could it be time for another, more traditional perspective? This Schumann is magisterial, less nervous of taking his time. For those who’ve wholeheartedly embraced the revisionist Schumann, the warmth and depth of the orchestral sound may be a little startling at first, but these ears grew accustomed to it quite quickly.
What really gives these performances weight, in the best sense, is Barenboim’s marvellous sense of the long line – the kind of incredible long-breathed phrasing that, in his hands, can make even a whole act of a Wagnerian music-drama feel like one sustained melody. In the slow movement of the Second Symphony and the ‘cathedral’ fourth movement of the ‘Rhenish’ it’s not only convincing but moving and unashamedly pleasurable. Moments like the horns and flute ‘awakening’ in the finale of the ‘Spring’ are gorgeous – yes, why not linger lovingly over moments like these? They’re worth it.
But something of the edgy, lateral, quick-witted Schumann opened out by Gardiner is lost. The Second Symphony’s internal struggle is dulled, however gorgeously, and the Fourth is just too grand and confident for me. At its premiere it confused its audience; it should confuse us, tease and provoke us still.