Schumann: the Symphonies review – Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic disappoint

Berliner Philharmoniker/Rattle
(Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings, 2 CDs and Blu-Ray disc)

The Berlin Philharmonic is arguably the most famous orchestral brand in the musical world today, but that, it seems, is no longer enough to ensure that it can enjoy a comfortable relationship with the classical recording industry. In order to issue recordings of what it and its conductors want to record, rather than being forced to follow the commercial diktats of established labels, the Berlin Phil has become the latest orchestra to market its own discs.

Simon Rattle's Schumann cycle, from concerts last year in the Berliner Philharmonie, launches the venture; later this year, it will be followed by Rattle's St John Passion as well as Nikolaus Harnoncourt's cycle of the Schubert symphonies. It's certainly a lavishly presented set, fussily designed to be eye-catching rather than practical, with a landscape-shaped, linen-bound hardcover book holding the discs – two conventional CDs and a third Blu-Ray, which contains the performances in higher resolution (96kHz/24-bit) audio and HD video; the set also includes a code accessing studio-quality downloads (192 kHz/24-bit) of the performances.

The sound is undeniably very fine and the detail exemplary, but the performances leave a lot to be desired. There's a heavy, over-deliberate feeling to the playing, a thickness to the sound (despite the refinement of the recording), and a lack of athleticism in the rhythms that seems as if Schumann's symphonic writing is being approached from the perspective of the composers who came after him, especially Brahms, rather than from those of his own time, such as Mendelssohn. Rattle opts to perform the original 1841 version of the D Minor Symphony No 4, rather than Schumann's 1851 revision, but otherwise, it's hard to square these stolid performances, and their self-consciously moulded, almost Karajan-like detail, with the energised, transparent, period-instrument Schumann that Rattle conducted in London with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, six years ago.

At almost £40, the set is an expensive way to acquire the four Schumann (completed) symphonies. Sawallisch's EMI set, still hard to beat, is available for around a third of that price; David Zinman's (Arte Nova) is even cheaper, while Eliot Gardiner's period-instrument versions (Archiv) cost little more and you get the oratorio Paradise and the Peri included. It's going to take a lot of very skilful marketing – or some startlingly better performances than these – to convince the world that Berlin discs are worth their premium price.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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