Symphonies Nos 1 & 3; Die Grossmut des Scipio – Overture
Phion, Orchestra of Gelderland & Overijssel/Kevin Griffiths
CPO 777052-2 49:39 mins
Like his violin concertos (reviewed in the March issue), Romberg’s symphonies are a pleasant way of passing the time, but rarely match the hype in the sleeve notes, which are unidiomatically translated from the admittedly stiff German. ‘The main theme cheerfully forges ahead, whereas the middle sections are treated rather strictly and erudite.’ This is supposedly a description of the Andante from the First Symphony, a fairly unremarkable and predictable movement. The Menuetto which follows is more interesting, with accents and harmonic displacement wrong-footing the basic three-in-a-bar. It’s also one of the best played parts of the disc – elsewhere there isn’t always the unanimity and tightness of rhythm and phrasing which would impart extra zing, especially in faster music.
The Third Symphony is more interesting overall, with the first movement again blurring the location of bar-lines, and a few unexpected harmonic twists, one of Romberg’s most engaging characteristics. And in the Menuetto he cleverly pulls the wool over the listener’s ears with irregular phrase lengths, and finds a darker mood in the minor key in the trio. A firmer grip on the pulse would have enhanced the thrust of the performance, and this is even more evident in the final Vivace, where the contrapuntal lines sometimes become entangled. On the plus side, dynamics are varied and alert, and sound is clear and vibrant. Ultimately though, what is missing in the music is memorable thematic ideas – Romberg would not pass the Old Grey Whistle Test.