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CD Review

Robert Schumann

Berliner Philharmoniker 140011

Complete Symphonies

  • Symphony #1 in B Flat Major "Spring", Op. 38
  • Symphony #2 in C Major, Op. 61
  • Symphony #3 in E Flat Major "Rhenish", Op. 97
  • Symphony #4 in D minor (first version, 1841)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Simon Rattle
Recorded in 2013
Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings 140011 2CDs (125 min) + Blu-ray (175 min)
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Last May, following the example of many top orchestras, the Berlin Philharmonic launched its own record label, Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings. The twilight of the great recording labels has moved into another phase. The former flagship of Deutsche Grammophon and of EMI is going to market its discs itself. The inaugural release of Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings is a splendidly packaged Robert Schumann Symphonies cycle conducted by Simon Rattle, recorded during concerts throughout 2013. The Berliner wouldn't be the Berliner if the presentation wasn't extra special. In the form of a landscape-sized linen-bound book with quality paper decorated with motifs from the posh Berlin porcelain factory, this Schumann box not only contains two CDs, but also a Blu-ray disc offering the concerts in Pure Audio 24-bit/96 kHz (2.0 LPCM Stereo or 5.0 DTS-HD MA) and in High Definition Video (Full HD 16:9/PCM Stereo or 5.0 Surround DTS-HD). Moreover included are a download code for high resolution audio files of the entire album (in 24 bit/up to 192 kHz) and a 7-day ticket for the Digital Concert Hall, Berlin Philharmonic's video streaming service. This is sheer audiophile heaven.

The Blu-ray is completed with a Rattle monologue about Schumann, a "Behind the scenes" of the recording, and publicity for the Digital Concert Hall. Future releases will include a Bach St. John Passion from Rattle and a Schubert Symphonies cycle from Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

For some peculiar reason the liner notes by Volker Tarnow insist upon a so-called "Schumann tradition" of the Berlin Philharmonic. Why? Of the orchestra's most recent principal conductors Claudio Abbado had no affinity with Schumann's symphonic repertoire, while Herbert von Karajan's only complete cycle from the early 1970s has always been an uneven affair. Not counting the towering rendition of the Fourth by Wilhelm Furtwängler (which is over 60 years old), the most memorable outings of the Berliners in Schumann were achieved under guest maestros like Rafael Kubelik and James Levine. Simon Rattle himself readily admits his interest in Schumann is fairly recent and what's more his approach has nothing in common with the older recordings by the orchestra. So much for the Schumann tradition.

The sonority of Rattle's Schumann tries to hold the middle between the traditional, large orchestra and smaller ensembles inspired by period performance practice. It's not an undivided success. Strings are reduced, textures are transparent and the orchestral balance is magnificent throughout. The quality of the orchestra, beautifully rendered by the recording, is never in doubt. Jonathan Kelly's solo oboe in the Adagio espressivo of the Second Symphony, the divided strings in the Scherzo of that same symphony or at the beginning of the Third, are but a few moments where we are reminded the Berlin Philharmonic is completely in charge. What is generally missing in Rattle's approach, however, is a sense of spontaneity and impulsiveness. No risks are taken, everything remains coolly objective and the music hardly ever gets really going, which is for a so-called "Echt Romantic", or the heir of Mendelssohn, as Rattle sees Schumann, unconvincing. Tempo changes occasionally tend to sound mannered and forced rather than natural and infectious – the ending of the Scherzo of the Fourth is a case in point, as is the finale of the "Spring" Symphony.

It is also as if Rattle denies Schumann's darker side – one reason why he refuses to play the revised version of the Fourth, preferring the lighter and what he considers more gracious (if not quite so convincing) original dating from Schumann's frenzy of creativity in the early 1840s. The "Feierlich" movement in the "Rhenish", too, sounds grand rather than profound – let alone the frightening passage, which should reflect the composer with suicidal inclinations, as Rattle explains in so many words in the accompanying conversation. But then again, if the conductor considers playing the Schumann Symphonies "like Christmas all year round", you know not everything is going to be to your liking.

In short, this handsome release reminds us of the opulence of the Berlin Philharmonic, but unfortunately it doesn't set a new standard in the interpretation of the Schumann Symphonies. As often with Simon Rattle upon unfamiliar ground, this is more a work in progress than a definitive statement.

Copyright © 2014, Marc Haegeman