Schumann: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 4 - Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, François-Xavier Roth
Classical - Orchestral
Robert Schumann: Symphony No. 1 in B flat major, Op. 38 "Spring", Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120
The year 1841 finally marked Robert Schumann’s breakthrough as a composer for orchestra. That year, he created no less than two works: his First Symphony, also known as the “Spring Symphony”, and a piece which he initially planned as a "Symphonic Fantasy" in one movement, and which would later become his Symphony in D Minor.
The Spring Symphony was composed in the coldest winter. Full of longing, it is a work that knows only one direction: growing, blossoming, the path to light and new life. The Symphony in D minor seems much more somber and intimate, “a work from the innermost depths of his soul”, as Clara Schumann noted in her diary. However, the audience could not warm up to this bold, impetuous work, and Schumann set it aside. Ten years later, after a major revision, he published it as his 4th Symphony.
This album pairs the Spring Symphony with the original version of the Symphony in D minor, the version which friends such as Johannes Brahms preferred over the later edition. Schumann never heard it again in his lifetime, and it was not until 1889 that it was performed in public once more, by the Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne under the baton of Franz Wüllner.
François-Xavier Roth, the Gürzenich Orchestra’s current chief conductor, also prefers the original version. With its leaner orchestration, it is certainly the more radical one, and thus requires a higher degree of commitment from the orchestra musicians in forming crescendi, melodic phrases, and extended arcs of formal development.
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Review by Adrian Quanjer - August 15, 2020
If a quality label like myrios classics reappears on this site with a new SACD release we must be very pleased indeed. A couple of years ago many if not all of us, including me, were sad to see myrios shifting to download only. Not because of quality concerns. Most of us are well aware that a download site like Native DSD certifies that all source material is either in DSD or DXD. It may sound trivial, but the real reason seems to be that the kind of music lovers that gather around HRAudio.net prefer a physical product that they can touch and listen to, whilst reading the usually extensive and instructive liner notes.
That labels turn to download is, as we all know by now, not new. And we have to respect their commercial considerations. However, from a myrios press bulletin, we learn that this new SACD release is not a one-off. It is a “first collaboration between the Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne, François-Xavier Roth and the myrios classics label” and “released as a limited edition on SACD”. We may, therefore, assume that in the years to come more will follow.
I won’t pretend that it fills a much-needed gap in the catalogue. Yet, I’m optimistic about this one finding its way among classical music lovers alongside other notable releases. It has several trump cards up its sleeve that some of the others cannot match or don’t have at all. Firstly, Symphony no. 4 is, like only a few other recordings, played in its original version; a version particularly appreciated by contemporaries like Johannes Brahms. Secondly, both symphonies were recorded during live performances, having the advantage of the emotional interrelation between musicians and the audience. Thirdly, they are played by a medium-large orchestral force, which will please many listeners who don’t like lean chamber versions, whether they be HIP or not. Fourthly, it is the fruit of a unique amalgamation of the sparkling and enthusiastic views of a French Chef and the staunch tradition of a great German ensemble.
Schumann’s first symphony was written in the coldest month of the year 1841 surely in anticipation of and longing for spring to arrive. Its first movement “Spring’s Awakening” is not just about lilies of the valley and buttercups in the meadow. Supported with a large complement of brass (4 horns, 2 trumpets, and 3 trombones) it is a combination of rain and shine, as the orchestra’s journey through the movements makes clear. That said, one may ask “Is spring in France different from spring in Germany?” One quickly becomes aware that François-Xavier Roth feels that it is so. His directing is not only precise, but it also has an inspiring and even ‘dancing’ directness putting accents in places where I did not expect them, lending the Spring Symphony a kind of surprising, yet authoritative vigour, shunning any heaviness some larger orchestras are prone to deliver in this kind of romantic repertoire. Roth turns the stormy weather in the final movement into an exciting May shower with clear expectations for the birds to reappear singing in the wet sunshine. The best of two worlds? I think so.
The fat plum is, of course, the fourth in its original form, ”Fantaisie symphonique”. It is said, that first ideas are not necessarily the worst. Brahms concurred openly. Nevertheless, most recordings are based on the final 1851 version. Of the few original accounts in the Hi-res catalogue we have (BIS): Schumann: Symphonies 3 & 4 - Dausgaard played by a chamber orchestra with a complement of 38 musicians, and a large scale (LSO Live): Schumann: Symphonies 2 & 4 - Gardiner. In this recording, the Cologne orchestra covers the middle ground with around 58 musicians.
As the orchestration for the brass and woodwind is fixed, with notably strong brass, similar to the first, the numbers have a direct bearing on the overall balance. More wind means fewer strings. Schumann is often thought to have difficulty when orchestrating his compositional ideas, and I think that it is largely true for his solo concerti. But in his symphonic output, he proves the opposite, provided the direction is in the right hands. Compared to the ‘slow motion’ account of MTT and the San Francisco Symphony (SFS Media boxed set), undoubtedly welcomed in traditional circles, Roth brings articulated air into each of the four movements, comparable to Dausgaard’s and Gardiner’s readings.
Roth meticulously unravels the darker aspects of Schumann’s complex character, hidden in the minor key scored passages - in complete contrast to triumphant positivity of the “Spring Symphony”, composed in the same year - dusting off the score into obtaining greater transparency, without robbing it of its compelling impact. In doing so, he demonstrates the ‘rapport’ he has built with his musicians, ably following his twists and turns to arrive at a common reading of prime quality.
As said, there are other Schumann symphonies around equally bursting with highly spirited performances. But Roth & Co have something the competition has not, or to a lesser degree: The recorded quality. This release is not a PCM upgrade. The original recording was made in DXD, 352.8 kHz/24 bit, and with the right reproduction equipment the result is ‘bluffant’.
With this release, myrios classics have put the Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne under its current Music Director, François-Xavier Roth (since 2017 also Principal Guest Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra!) firmly on the map. A winning team. We should keep an open eye and keen interest in what is to follow in the years ahead.
Blangy-le-Château, Normandy, France.
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