Christian Thielemann has recorded the Schumann symphonies before, with the Philharmonia for Deutsche Grammophon, two decades ago. But this new set comes from concerts that Thielemann and the Dresden Staatskapelle gave on tour in Suntory Hall in Tokyo last autumn, released now to mark Thielemann’s 60th birthday this month.
Aided by the sumptuously rich playing of the Staatskapelle’s strings, and its implacable brass, these are performances that seem more concerned with where Schumann’s symphonies might lead in 19th-century German Romanticism than with where they have come from. The centre of gravity of Thielemann’s repertory naturally tends to lie several decades later than the 1840s, when these works were composed (though he conducts the usual 1851 revision of the Fourth, begun 10 years earlier), and his approach sometimes seems more appropriate to Wagner or Bruckner than it does to Schumann.
There are passages in all four works that seem impossibly sluggish and bombastic, while others are weighed down with far too much expressive moulding. Only the Second Symphony survives Thielemann’s treatment convincingly, and there are moments in his performance that seem genuinely revelatory. He teases out the shifting harmonies of the Second’s slow introduction to wonderful effect, for instance, and transforms its Adagio third movement into an extraordinarily searching experience, as profound as anything to be found elsewhere in Schumann’s orchestral output.
But even in the Second, the scherzo is dogged rather than truly athletic, while the timpani in the finale’s closing bars seem more suitable for Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, and truly transcendent moments in the other symphonies are hard to find. As a whole the set never seems a convincing rival to what’s already available – from Wolfgang Sawallisch’s traditional approach (also with the Dresden orchestra) on Warner Classics to John Eliot Gardiner’s on period instruments (DG Archiv) and Robin Ticciati’s (Linn), somewhere in between.
Also out this week
Baritone Matthias Goerne’s latest foray into Schumann’s songs pairs the Op 24 Liederkreis with the 12 Kerner Lieder Op 35. Where he was partnered by Markus Hinterhäuser for his previous Schumann disc, centred on the Myrthen songs, Goerne’s pianist this time is Leif Ove Andsnes and the difference is clear. Andsnes is a much more intrusive, attention-seeking accompanist, too often distracting attention from Goerne’s marvellous control of line and colour. But there are plenty of fine alternative versions of the Op 24 cycle, while for the Kerner songs, Christian Gerhaher’s recent disc can be safely recommended.