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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)
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon JapanOrder Now from ArkivMusic.comFind it at CD Universe Find it at JPC

Marc Haegeman reviewed this lavish set in 2014, and his views on it are remarkably similar to mine. Certainly, there was a tremendous amount of effort that went into crafting this release. If you have Blu-ray capabilities, I imagine you will thrill at hearing the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in the best sound that you can. I do not imagine that anyone will want the "making of" silliness that includes an advertisement for the Digital Concert Hall, which you get limited access to by purchasing this package. The whole thing is beautifully done, and looks like something you'd show off in your living room, provided that any of your friends would envy your displaying a Schumann cycle on your end table.

As Mr. Haegeman pointed out, the whole notion of a "Schumann tradition" at the Philharmonic is rather silly. Karajan's Schumann has its admirers, but Abbado showed no particular gift for the composer during his tenure (or his career, for that matter), while the best Schumann from Berlin came from Kubelik and Levine. Other orchestras in Germany have a much clearer legacy in this music, at least on disc, and so there goes that idea. Rattle has never demonstrated that the Romantics are really his gift, either. Generally speaking, I admire the conductor most in Shostakovich, Britten, and other more "modern" works. Rattle conducts and records this music because he is supposed to, by virtue of his leadership in Berlin.

The orchestra sounds magnificent. The entire ensemble is unbelievably talented, and nobody will dispute that this release is a technical success. Unfortunately, everything else is less than special. Compare the rather faceless phrasing of the strings to the burnished warmth and panache of the Staatskapelle Dresden, or the somewhat cloudy orchestral exchanges to the snap of the Cleveland Orchestra. Rattle occasionally tries to imprint his personal vision on these pieces, but generally that consists of odd tempo manipulations and generic swiftness. By the latter I mean that there is no real excitement when the music gets faster, and the tension is not well sustained when it's slow. Indeed, like his generally fine Beethoven cycle with the Vienna Philharmonic on Warner Classics, Rattle seems to be mixing various interpretative approaches at random. Sometimes the Berliners play like they are following the old-fashioned school, and other times they seem intent on a more "modern" view. Sadly, neither orchestra nor conductor convince for extended stretches of time. The music – always questioned for its orchestration – takes on a most unwelcome sogginess where it should have some real meat. Even conductors who take a less traditional, more period style (namely David Zinman) feature far more crisp execution. With standout versions from Bernstein (twice) and many others already mentioned, this is simply not good enough.

As a final complaint, this set is very pricey. As I write this, a year after our previous review, ArkivMusic is listing this "on sale" for sixty-dollars. That would be inexcusable for a two disc set if the recordings therein were references. They are not, and as good as they may sound on Blu-ray (they are frankly not all that special in standard stereo, especially compared to great cycles of yesterday and today) there is no reason you should pay such a premium price for what amounts to decent performances, a Blu-ray with a half documentary, and beautiful packaging. Simon Rattle has given us far better, at a much lower expense.

Copyright © 2015, Brian Wigman