Clara Schumann, Schumann: Symphony No.1; Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 4 ; Manfred Overture; Violin Concerto; Andante and Variations; Five Songs

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COMPOSERS: Clara Schumann,Schumann
LABELS: Philadelphia Orchestra
WORKS: Symphony No.1; Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 3; Symphony No. 4 ; Manfred Overture; Violin Concerto; Andante and Variations; Five Songs
PERFORMER: Leonidas Kavakos (violin), Thomas Hampson (baritone), Rudolf Buchbinder (piano), Lloyd Smith, Efe Baltacigil (cello), Nolan Miller (horn); Philadelphia Orchestra/Wolfgang Sawallisch (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: (distr. +1 800 457 8354; www.philorch.org) POA 200
These live performances are the Philadelphia Orchestra’s farewell tribute to Wolfgang Sawallisch at the end of his ten-year stint as its music director. The third disc features Sawallisch not only as conductor, but also as pianist in a group of songs by Clara Schumann, very well sung by Thomas Hampson, and in Schumann’s Andante and Variations for two pianos in its rarely heard original version with horn and two cellos. But the real value of the additional CD lies in its inclusion of a fine performance of the hauntingly beautiful late Violin Concerto, with Leonidas Kavakos an eloquent soloist. In this new reading the polonaise-like finale flows far more naturally than it does in the lumbering account Kremer and Harnoncourt recorded for Teldec.

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Sawallisch has previously made a much-admired Schumann symphonic cycle for EMI with the Dresden Staatskapelle. These new versions – well recorded, though in a fairly dry acoustic – leave no doubt as to his deep sympathy for the music, though they’re more of a qualified success. Best is the Rhenish, with Sawallisch relaxing the tempo very effectively for the opening movement’s melancholy second subject, and the horns ringing out thrillingly at the approach to the recapitulation. The Rhenish is Schumann’s only symphony to do without a slow introduction, and it’s in those opening pages of the remaining works that Sawallisch’s general lack of mystery and atmosphere is perhaps most keenly felt. Just compare Kubelík at the start of the C major Second Symphony: in his hands the work’s motto theme on the brass emerges out of the mist in a way that eludes Sawallisch. More disappointing still is the slow movement of the same work – one of Schumann’s great tragic utterances, and a piece that breathes the air of a Bach Passion. Sawallisch, alas, is far too impatient to get anywhere near the heart of the music, and to hear the far more spacious and expressive performances by Kubelík, or Szell and the Cleveland (most lingering of all), is to enter a different world. It’s true that the finale of Kubelík’s Spring Symphony – a good deal more grazioso than animato – takes some getting used to, but his bargain-price set still wears well, and is full of characteristic warmth and humanity. Misha Donat