WORKS: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 4; Symphony in G minor (Zwickau) ; Overture, Scherzo and Finale; Konzertstück for Four Horns and Orchestra
PERFORMER: Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/John Eliot Gardiner
CATALOGUE NO: 457 591-2
Of all the 19th-century composers who have been given the ‘period instrument treatment’ in the last couple of decades, Schumann’s reputation has perhaps gained the most. Long criticised for his supposedly opaque orchestration, and for symphonic structures which fell somewhere between the tunefulness of Schubert and the serious integrity of Brahms, it has taken the clear textures and energy of the period bands to bring this music back to life. There have already been several reassessments on disc, but this handsome new DG collection strikes me as the best complete set so far.
Ever the original, Gardiner has performed these symphonies with the violins and violas standing (as was the practice in the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in Schumann’s day); and though it might seem perverse to say one can hear the results on CD, I was certainly aware when listening to these thrilling performances of a vigour and projection to the string playing which is all too often lacking. Speeds are brisk but never driven too hard: awkward moments such as the scherzos in the First and Fourth symphonies have an appropriate lightness, but Gardiner is prepared to enjoy movements such as the Adagio espressivo of No. 2, with its exquisite oboe melody.
Like Harnoncourt in his recent Teldec Schumann cycle (with the COE – modern instruments but ‘period’ manners), Gardiner gives an airing to the seldom-heard original 1841 version of Symphony No. 4; but whereas the Harnoncourt set fits on to two CDs, Gardiner’s extra playing time allows not only the more familiar 1851 revision of this work, but also Schumann’s two not-quite symphonies and the wonderful Konzertstück for four horns. The recordings manage to be both magnificently detailed and warm, and DGproduction values are high throughout. Strongly recommended.