Schumann: Symphonies Nos 1-4; Konzertstück for 4 horns and Orchestra

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Schumann
LABELS: Orfeo
WORKS: Symphonies Nos 1-4; Konzertstück for 4 horns and Orchestra
PERFORMER: Vienna SO/Fabio Luisi
CATALOGUE NO: C 717 102 H

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Fabio Luisi’s Schumann cycle is something of a mixed bag, with performances of variable quality, recorded in different venues with noticeably divergent acoustic properties. Most successful is the Rhenish Symphony No. 3, with a surging account of the opening Allegro, and an appropriately sombre view of the famous ‘Cologne Cathedral’ penultimate movement.

The D minor Fourth Symphony comes off well, too, though it’s a pity Luisi slows down so much for the scherzo’s trio. It’s true that the trio recalls the central section from the preceding slow movement, but the musical material is now used in a wholly different context, and functions more as a transformation than a straightforward reminiscence.

More disturbing are Luisi’s tempo fluctuations in the first two symphonies. The finale of the Spring features Schumann’s problematic tempo marking, requesting a delivery that is not only animated but also graceful: Luisi takes the various appearances of its gently ‘tripping’ main theme at a moderate pace, but speeds up markedly for everything in between, producing a stop-go performance that does considerable damage to the overall structure of the piece.

A more unified approach is offered on an alternative recording by Rafael Kubelík and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, though you may find them distinctly more graceful than lively. On the other hand, John Eliot Gardiner and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique are so fast that they lose sight of the music’s elegance altogether. Steering a middle course, though perhaps with less warmth and humanity than Kubelík, are George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra (on Sony). 

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Luisi again accelerates tremendously in the closing pages of the Second Symphony’s scherzo. For this piece you really need to hear the dazzling performance by Szell, which avoids that pitfall. The inclusion on this new recording of the rarely-hear Konzertstück for four horns is a bonus, though here Gardiner (on Archiv) provides greater romantic ardour. Misha Donat