Schumann: Symphony No.1 (Spring); Symphony No. 4

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WORKS: Symphony No.1 (Spring); Symphony No. 4
PERFORMER: Philharmonia Orchestra/Christian Thielemann
CATALOGUE NO: 469 700-2
The old idea that Schumann couldn’t write symphonies – that the structures are loose, the arguments weak – may be dying, but it’s dying slowly. So it’s depressing to come across a new version like this, which, if anything, is going to give received opinion an unneeded boost. You couldn’t accuse Christian Thielemann of not taking this music seriously; in fact he seems to be concerned to give every detail as full expressive weight and as rounded a tone as possible. It isn’t long though before the fresh and vital Spring Symphony acquires the ponderous gravity of a Victorian sermon. The first movement more


or less keeps going, but the Molto vivace scherzo is about as ‘vivacious’ as a run across a muddy ploughed field in loose-fitting gumboots, the heavy bulges on Schumann’s sforzando accents adding weight rather than impelling the music forward. The gravity is more effective in parts of the Fourth Symphony – the slow introduction broods impressively, and the slow transition to the finale has a passing Brucknerian grandeur. But in faster music the weight can become oppressive, as in the finale’s central ‘development’ section, and with the music generating so little momentum or visceral excitement it’s not surprising that the sudden change to a faster tempo at the start of the coda jars – it simply doesn’t make organic sense. For the same price as this disc you can have all four symphonies in much more cogent and compelling performances conducted by Riccardo Muti – that’s the set I’d recommend to anyone who still has doubts about Schumann’s stature and originality as a symphonist. Stephen Johnson