schumann symphonies bis

Robert Schumann (1810-56)
The Symphonies and Overtures
Swedish Chamber Orchestra/Thomas Dausgaard
rec. 2005-07 Örebro Concert Hall, Sweden
BIS BIS-2669 SACD [3 discs :230]

In the last twelve months this is the third BIS box set I have reviewed of recordings by Thomas Dausgaard conducting The Swedish Chamber Orchestra in cycles of symphonies by Brahms, Schubert and now Schumann. This three SACD set was recorded between 2005-7 and originally released as individual discs. Cannily, BIS have taken those releases and popped them into a neat slimline box at a special price which equates to three discs for the price of two. All three discs were recorded in the justly renowned BIS SACD surround sound. I listened to the SACD stereo layer and it is simply superb. If you want to hear the detail and nuance of Schumann’s orchestral scores revealed quite thrillingly then this is the set for you. Each disc is very generously filled too with the combined running time just ten minutes short of four hours. The consequence is that aside for Schumann’s concertante works you can hear just about all of his orchestral music including both versions of the Symphony No 4 as well as the abandoned fragment of the so-called Zwickau Symphony. In the age of the CD coupling the four usual symphonies has proved to be a popular option and in that format the collector can choose from any number of classic versions or modern remakes. On Audite Heinz Holliger led a six disc survey which covers the same works as here plus all the concertante works – I have not heard any of that set – it seems to be the only equivalent comprehensive survey to this set.

Some reviewers of other releases in the various BIS series have expressed concern about a nominally chamber orchestra playing these symphonic Romantic works. I have to say that across all three sets but especially in this Schumann survey for me this is not an issue at all. If collectors are concerned that in some way “chamber” will be synonymous with “thin” or “lightweight” this is simply not the case. The back of the booklets [the box simply includes the discs in paper slips and the three original CD booklets] show the orchestra with some 33 or so members. Allowing for the full/necessary wind and brass compliment this would suggest barely twenty string players which my ears find hard to believe as the sound from the strings is wonderfully full and rich. Lean for sure but with breath-taking unanimity and ensemble playing. Dausgaard is a longtime collaborator with the orchestra and frankly it shows. There is a consistency in style and execution across all these sets that speaks of a shared artistic vision. Along with the others, these discs were part of the orchestra’s “Opening Doors” initiative with the aim of throwing new light on familiar works. Evidence of this consistency is I am going to repeat a paragraph I wrote about the Brahms set; “To that title I would add “changing perspectives and perceptions”. As such this is not a cycle of period-practice performances. The Swedish Chamber Orchestra play on modern instruments…. Dausgaard does favour antiphonal seating for his violins which is very effective. The style of the performances, especially as applied to tempi and instrumental textures, is quite different from what might be termed ‘traditional’ interpretations.”

Dausgaard is interpretatively similar across all three cycles too with sharply defined accents and dynamics, little or no sentiment and tempi that sit at the faster end of the expected range. If this approach under-played the scale and Late Romanticism of Brahms and came at the cost of warmth and lyricism in Schubert I think it is extremely effective in Schumann. Dausgaard’s approach more naturally aligns with the goals and aspirations of the early Romantics with sharp edged drama, virtuosic and exciting writing and greater complexity in the instrumental writing revealed in thrilling detail. Another advantage of the lucidity of the playing and recording here is that it rather debunks the easy/lazy narrative that Schumann was a poor orchestrator. Listening to this set in close succession you soon become absorbed into Schumann’s undoubtedly individual but – as played here at least – attractive sound world. For sure Schumann does have a tendency to write figurations that lie more easily under a keyboard player’s hands than they do on a violin but seemingly these Swedish players appear less troubled (i.e. not at all) by such considerations than lesser mortals. There is still a stylistic trade-off to accept. Dausgaard can be rather too rigorous and unrelenting in his goal to avoid any accusations of sentimentality. Affection is rarely in evidence – sheer beauty of orchestral sound there is in abundance but this is a clear, cool unmannered beauty with string vibrato at a minimum and phrase endings almost never indulged. For example the bustling scherzo of Symphony No 2 [disc 2 track 2] does not bubble with the humour it can. This is a notoriously tricky string passage and is played here with breathtaking ease but little warmth. But then exactly the same style of playing pays dividends in the same symphony’s finale where the lean muscularity of the playing suits the mood and music to a tee. So if I have a criticism about this approach it is that it risks becoming an interpretative diktat rather unyieldingly applied.

But that said there is so much to savour and cherish across the complete set. Having the incomplete fragment of the Zwickau Symphony [disc 1 track 7] is valuable if only to confirm the progress Schumann made in a relatively brief period from this student work to the first symphonic flowering (pun intended) of the Symphony No 1 ‘Spring’. The excellent liner by Horst A. Scholz reminds the listener that the work originally had movement titles which embody the Romantic ideal of the human experience reflected in Nature. Certainly, this performance bursts with energy and life – the famous upward surging opening of the finale is as exhilarating as any I have heard. The standard two disc/four symphony set often means the omission of the substantial Overture, Scherzo and Finale Op 52 [it is included in the justly famous Sawallisch/Dresden twofer and Solti/VPO on Decca but not Karajan, Barenboim, Levine, Bernstein, Szell and others]. Although clearly not a symphony – Schumann struggled with quite what to call the work – it is his most substantial orchestral work after them and as such is an important part of any survey. It receives a very dynamic performance here which marks Schumann’s progression and development as a symphonic composer with the opus number placing it between Symphonies 1 and 2.

However, the actual Symphony No 2 is the work that – in its revised version – is now known as No 4. Valuably this set includes both the original and revised versions of Symphony No.4 which is rarer still is such collections. Gardiner includes it in his 3 disc set on authentic instruments as does Holliger in his 6 disc set, but that is just about it. The liner accompanying the second disc (which appears to have been the first release in the “Opening Doors” initiative) makes the point that Brahms was not sure that Schumann “improved” the work when he extensively rewrote it a decade after its initial failure. Brahms wrote; “… the score has not gained through its revision, but rather lost in terms of charm, lightness and clarity”. Certainly this performance is rich in the latter two, if a fraction stern rather than charming. But that said, the second movement Romanza is quite beautifully done with one of many wind solos very beautifully taken. A notable feature across the entire set is the clear influence HIP practices that have informed the performing choices here. According to the liner, the brass do play on reproduction period instruments, but elsewhere it is more a question of execution rather than instrument that indicates the chosen style. String vibrato is kept to a minimum but without the disfiguring bulging that used to mar many early forays into HIP, dynamics are terraced and articulations and accentuations are always razor sharp.

But what this style does clearly reveal – especially when this group of works is listened to in order and back to back – is how Schumann’s musical vocabulary and style evolved in a relatively brief period of time. So the original Symphony No 4 dates from 1841 with the much grander high-Romantic Symphony No 3 ‘Rhenish’ less than a decade later in 1850. The performance of this work by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra follows very much in the style of all the others in this set and I could imagine that this will be where listeners steeped in the later performing traditions of Karajan and the like might have greater concerns. Personally, I still find the exceptional clarity and energy brought to these works by Dausgaard and the SCO adds insights and understanding of these revolutionary works in a way that other performances aiming for a kind of proto-Brahmsian weight do not. That is also the reason that I find Mahler’s re-workings of the four symphonies to be a historically interesting insight into Mahler’s mind, but of not much value when considering Schumann’s. That the orchestra can play with weight and richness is evident in the performance of the revised Symphony No 4 [CD3 tracks 8-11]. Yes of course the sound is still very clean and wonderfully detailed but listening to the reworking of essentially the same musical material alongside the original is a fascinating and rewarding experience. Perhaps because the revision is so familiar, the extra power and weight of the re-orchestration makes for an even more uplifting experience – the closing pages bring this set to an exultant and thrilling conclusion.

Warner’s repackaging of the 1956 cycle Paul Kletzki recorded with the Israel PO (which does include the Overture, Scherzo and Finale within its 2 disc format, but I have not heard this set) references Schumann’s orchestral writing of “fundamental strangeness and feverish excitement”. These are two qualities that some later interpreters have sought to minimise as though they were slightly distasteful attributes. Part of the reason I have enjoyed this Dausgaard survey so much is that he views these as strengths rather than weaknesses. Of course, he is not alone in so doing, but he is absolutely consistent in this view across all the works. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the group of six overtures – both concert and theatrical – that are evenly distributed across the three discs. Where Schumann is directly responding to Romantic authors such as Schiller (The Bride of Messina – CD 1 track 5) Goethe (Overture to Scenes from Goethe’s Faust – CD 2 track 5) or Byron (Overture to Manfred – CD 3 track 6) the extra-musical inspiration drew from the composer music of sharp contrast and high drama – again qualities that are a natural extension of the performing style here so without exception the overtures receive compelling and exciting performances too. If I am less enamoured of the other Goethe overture Hermann und Dorothea [CD3 track 7 – mis-listed on the box and booklet as Op 126] it is simply that the pervasive use of the French Marseillaise, albeit for dramatic purposes, brings other associations. The Julius Caesar Overture Op 128 [CD 2 track 8] again receives a powerful and impressive performance. This is another work whose essential quality is often questioned, but Dausgaard in the liner makes the case for this being a consciously strange and questing work and unsurprisingly this is backed up by a performance of imposing conviction.

With the catalogue overwhelmed with impressive sets of these remarkable works by the finest orchestras and the most insightful conductors no single version could ever be termed “best”. But I have to say I have enjoyed this cycle greatly, and feel that I have learnt more about Schumann in the process precisely because the performances challenge convention. The playing is of breathtaking sophistication and skill and the BIS SACD engineering is undemonstrably of demonstration quality. Add to that the informative liner notes and the very attractive 3 for 2 price-point and this has become a set that competes with the very best.

Nick Barnard

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Symphony No 1 in B-flat major Op 38 ‘Spring’ (1841)
Overture to Schiller’s ‘Braut von Messina’ Op 100 (1851)
Overture to the Opera ‘Genoveva’ Op 81 (1850)
‘Zwickau Symphony’ in G minor (1832-33)
Overture, Scherzo and Finale Op 52 (1841-45)
Symphony No 2 in C major Op 61 (1845-46)
Overture to ‘Scenes from Goethe’s Faust’ (1853)
Julius Caesar Overture Op 128 (1851)
Symphony No 4 in D minor Op 120 (original version 1841)
Symphony No 3 in E-flat major Op 97 ‘Rhenish’ (1850)
Overture to ‘Manfred’ Op 115 (1848)
Hermann und Dorothea Overture Op 136 (1851)
Symphony No 4 in D minor Op 120 (final version 1851)