In the autumn of his career Claudio Abbado turns to Robert Schumann's Second Symphony. Interestingly, this is a first for the 80-year old Italian maestro in spite of his profuse recorded legacy. Although he focused on Schumann repeatedly (the Piano and Cello Concerto, as well as lesser-known pages like the Scenes from Goethe's Faust and the complete incidental music to Manfred), until now he never committed any of the Symphonies to disc.
This new CD documents concert performances with Abbado conducting his Orchestra Mozart in the Vienna Musikverein in November 2012. As in his latest Beethoven cycle, with diminished orchestral forces, textural clarity and a well-judged balance prevail in the symphony. Yet it is nonetheless felt that this Schumann stays a bit too much on the comfy side. One has to admire Abbado's often subtle shading and structural grasp, but others have proven a lot more consistent as well as persuasive in their reappraisal of this often damned symphonist. It never becomes really clear what Abbado wants to show us. A true romantic flame, this constant projection of sound in the fast movements, this forward urge that for example Wolfgang Sawallisch in a classic recording with the Staatskapelle Dresden so admirably rendered, flickers on and off with Abbado. The Adagio espressivo taken slowly skirts dangerously between introspection and plain inertia. The two overtures Manfred and the rarely heard Genoveva are much in the same vein, and remain in essence very traditional performances.
The enthusiasm and talent of the youthful Orchestra Mozart can't hide the relative blandness of this recording either. Others have gone a lot further in the refinement of the orchestral sonority (the already mentioned Sawallisch, but also Christoph von Dohnányi with Cleveland for example), or have offered more vital and vibrant readings (Leonard Bernstein in New York, Georg Solti in Vienna, Riccardo Muti with the Philharmonia, among others) – and that's not even considering the performances on period instruments.
Both the symphony and Genoveva are listed as recorded live, although there are is no way to tell they are. Audience noises are absent and applause has been edited.
In short, a curiosity within the legacy of Claudio Abbado, but far from essential listening.
Copyright © 2013, Marc Haegeman