Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Schumann: First Symphony

To be sure, a Schumann score is not as foolproof, as "self-rising," as a score of Wagner or Tchaikovsky or Richard Strauss, nor has the musical substance of a Schumann symphony the kind of inexorable propulsion of some Beethoven symphonies, which will survive even a shabby performance relatively unharmed. But is it really Schumann's fault that it takes a little trouble on the part of the conductor and orchestra to make his symphonies come off?
--George Szell, conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, 1946-1970

Schumann didn't just write music for the piano, obviously. But there is a bit of a debate as to the importance of his four symphonies.
George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Schumann: Symphonies 1-4; Manfred Overture

CBS, 1958/Sony, 1996

Fortunately, George Szell worshipped Schumann's four symphonies, and he conducted and recorded with the Cleveland Orchestra what is widely considered to be one of the best recordings ever of Schumann's First Symphony.Today's post is dedicated to that recording, which I highly, highly recommend.

A few introductory words about the Cleveland Orchestra: While Cleveland might be better known these days for its appallingly bad pro football team, this underappreciated city actually has a world-class orchestra. And Clevelanders have George Szell to thank for this--under Szell's direction (some might say dictatorial control), Cleveland transformed from a competent regional symphony into one of the world's finest orchestras.

Listener notes for Schumann's First Symphony:
1) It's almost shocking to go back to a "traditional-sounding" classical music symphony immediately after experiencing the overwhelming power and weight of Mahler's Third. Only some 55 years separate the compositions, but they sound centuries apart, don't they? I will say it's more relaxing to listen to a symphony when you don't have to keep a fearful grip on the volume dial.

2) I can see how this symphony could sound like a Mozart knockoff to a first-time listener (this is one of the criticisms leveled at Schumann's symphonies), but give it a chance and a few extra listens. To paraphrase Woody Allen, it's more complex and original than it sounds.

3) At 5:17 in the second movement (Track 2) what should be a beautiful passage played by the trombones gets mangled by poor intonation. Note that according to this CD's liner notes, this recording took place over two days--I'm surprised they didn't notice and re-record that passage. Cleveland is a better symphony than that.

4) A few comments about the particularly enjoyable third movement (the Scherzo): The main theme/motif of the third movement is quite interesting, especially when Schumann morphs it though major and minor keys. That creates quite a bit of tension and release.

5) Further, there are also several quite interesting meter changes in the third movement. At 1:19 in Track 3, the third movement shifts from 3/4 meter (that's the typical meter for a scherzo movement) into an unexpectedly lively 2/4 meter. At 2:42, it switches back to the original theme and meter. Then, at 3:21, we switch yet another meter, before returning back to the original theme once again at 4:24. Finally, there's a soft coda at very end of the movement, during which Szell takes all sorts of liberties with the tempo. This is one of the more interesting Scherzo movements I've ever heard.

6) The opening to the fourth movement sounds almost like a major scale! Admittedly, this movement sounds quite Mozart-like--at first. But listen at the 4:14 mark, when an entirely different theme with a very un-Mozart like tension begins.

7) Readers who are familiar with my writing on the Philadelphia Orchestra will know that it's a sadly rare pleasure for me to listen to clarinet solos that are played completely in tune.

8) Finally, getting back to the criticism that this symphony sounds like a Mozart knockoff, the very last minute of the fourth movement sounds, unfortunately, exactly like something Mozart would write. I'll be quite curious to see if Schumann's other symphonies (I'll be writing posts on all four) share this trait at all.

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