WORKS: Symphony No. 1 in B flat (Spring); Symphony No. 4 in D minor; Manfred Overture
PERFORMER: Berlin PO/James Levine
CATALOGUE NO: 435 856-2 DDD
It’s hard to keep a good thing down, and there are two of them here: the music (still often underrated) and the orchestra. Circumstances, however, conspire against them. The conductor does his best to get in the way by imposing forced tone and stolid tempi. This big, beefy manner is arresting at first but soon becomes tiresome when the playing has so little real fire. String playing is particularly pressurised: there is a truly horrible lean-in to start the Spring Symphony’s usually delightful slow movement, and the way the violins slither through the melody gives me the creeps.
No. 4 goes better. Everything Levine asks for is brought off with consummate skill; there are some well-timed gradual changes of pace, and the later movements are not so hefty and lumbering. The finale gets off to a positive start, though it sags, especially in the reprise, necessitating a noisy race to the end. Manfred has its exciting moments, and its soggy ones. The recorded balance is oppressively close.
There are magnificent, traditional performances of the Schumann symphonies recorded under Sawallisch, the Berlin Philharmonic’s recordings with Karajan are some of his best, and period orchestras are starting to play them. Who needs this? Robert Maycock