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Schumann: Complete Symphonic Works Vol 1 / Holliger

Schumann / Holliger / Wdr Sinfonieorchester Koeln
Release Date: 10/29/2013 
Label:  Audite   Catalog #: 97677   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Robert Schumann
Conductor:  Heinz Holliger
Orchestra/Ensemble:  West German Radio Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 12 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SCHUMANN Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4 (original version 1841). Overture, Scherzo, and Finale in E, op. 52 Heinz Holliger, cond; WDR SO AUDITE 97.677 (72: 09)

There is often some trepidation to experience at the arrival of a new Schumann CD. Few composers sound so different from performance to performance as Schumann does—just in general—and early music practices are at their most Read more controversial when they confront the traditions of Romantic music in the 1840s. This release contains the “Spring” Symphony, the Overture, Scherzo, and Finale , and the original version of the Symphony No. 4. I must say I was worried. Last fall, I reviewed Holliger’s CD of the Mendelssohn Third and Fourth symphonies with the Musikkollegium Winterthur and found no special insights in the performance. Such interpretive points as there were faded into the flat acoustic supplied by the engineers. The notes “talked a good game,” but….

This CD represents a doubly happy surprise, then. The music simply leaps from the loudspeakers, full of energy, joy, originality, and sound of remarkable warmth. So far as I can determine, the WDR SO is playing in substantial numbers, if not perhaps full strength. But no Norrington twang invades the string passages. Nor do I hear melodies chopped up into Baroque bits and pieces. Although the notes are more informative about Schumann’s psychology than the conductor’s performance practice, Holliger clearly favors a fruitier, more “original” sound from the brasses than usual—and the occasional harder impact from timpani.

What struck me foremost is how the introduction to the “Spring” Symphony leaps off the page. Holliger takes it fast and explosively. He begins with the fanfare voiced down a harmonic third, where it avoids blattiness. (Otherwise, this is the “usual version” of the work.) As the Symphony proceeds, it strikes me Holliger has found a way of integrating tempos in the music as though it were a piano piece. The actual thrust and velocity we hear are quite normal, but contrasting passages seem more vivid and, where appropriate, more mercurial. Textures become magical in places you might not expect. Plodding boredom is avoided. And traditional criticism of Schumann’s orchestration is dealt a serious blow yet again.

Performances of this work can rise or fall with the great fanfare climax in the middle of the first movement. There is nothing worse than just letting it go by stiffly. It can be a litmus test for time-beaters. Here, I’m happy to say Holliger gives us a beautifully judged ritard, and the extra champagne fizz from his brasses makes it a joyous and triumphant experience. I couldn’t resist playing it over several times. The slow movement is the other standout here, flowing along more swiftly than we might expect but losing no sentiment along the way—and avoiding boredom in places where we might have been reluctant to admit its existence in the past.

The rest of the Symphony unfolds in the same lively manner, as does the remainder of the CD. The Overture, Scherzo, and Finale is given a traditional but zesty account. The slightly smaller scale of the piece reinforces the notion of piano music, beautifully orchestrated and performed. But if there is another revelation, I’d say it is to be found in the original version of the Fourth Symphony, which rounds out the CD. Holliger has discovered that the key to this work is to let the textures dictate the tempo. Other conductors often give the impression of trying to make a big piece out of it—whereupon they fall prey to bizarre holes in the orchestration and the many places where Schumann doesn’t support this idea with appropriate weight. But take the music on its own terms, the way Holliger does here, play a good bit of it for deft movement, and suddenly this early version leaps forth with charm. Ultimately, for sheer power, I favor the reorchestrated, nearly Brahmsian version we have all come to know and love. But here, for the first time, I understand how Brahms could have preferred the original.

If we pay Schumann the compliment of knowing what he was trying to do, we see that he succeeded with orchestration here in an astonishingly original way. Quite simply, no other symphony of its era sounds like it—it is almost as though, like Stravinsky, Schumann chose his instruments to pique as much as to beguile. But beguile he does! The WDR SO plays with remarkable subtlety and should rise in anyone’s esteem from the very first hearing. I look forward to the rest of the cycle with genuine impatience!

FANFARE: Steven Kruger
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 1 in B flat major, Op. 38 "Spring" by Robert Schumann
Conductor:  Heinz Holliger
Orchestra/Ensemble:  West German Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1841; Germany 
Venue:  Philharmonie, Köln 
Length: 31 Minutes 35 Secs. 
Overture, Scherzo and Finale in E minor, Op. 52 by Robert Schumann
Conductor:  Heinz Holliger
Period: Romantic 
Written: Germany 
Venue:  Philharmonie, Köln 
Length: 16 Minutes 52 Secs. 
Symphony no 4 in D minor, Op. 120 by Robert Schumann
Conductor:  Heinz Holliger
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1851; Germany 
Venue:  Philharmonie, Köln 
Length: 23 Minutes 33 Secs. 

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