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A Version Therapy

New York
Carnegie Hall
10/15/2002 -  
Robert Schumann: Manfred Overture; Cello Concerto; Symphony # 4
Truls Mork (cello)
Philadelphia Orchestra
Wolfganag Sawallisch (conductor)

If, after my death, something doesn’t sound right,
then change it. You have not only a right but a duty to do so.”

Mahler to Klemperer and Oscar Fried,
during rehearsals for the premiere of the
Symphony # 8

Poor Schumann! Even though he wrote four magnificent symphonies, he suffered so from low self esteem that, like Bruckner after him, he was willing to alter his manuscripts at the first sign of public displeasure. Long after his demise, his orchestral essays were assailed by well meaning conductors and reworked again and again to achieve each and every maestro’s own conception of properly balanced sonority. Mahler completely rebuilt the pieces, performing much more radical surgery than his “retuchen” of the Beethoven oeuvre, for which he incurred the wrath of the Viennese press. I don’t usually recommend CD’s, but the set by Aldo Ceccato of these essentially new Schumann symphonies on the Bis label is especially revelatory. The great Szell series of the four contains more subtle changes, but there are enough of them to qualify these versions as hyphenated combined efforts. Although there is absolutely no truth to the rumor that Schumann suffered these “improvements” as divine retribution for his chosen calling as a music critic, it is interesting to compare his own thoughts on the matter to the 20th century aggregate. One of the most enjoyable afternoons that I ever spent was in listening to the radio and hearing William Malloch play three different versions of the ”Spring” back to back, realizing that the bill of fare was indeed spiced with variety. This season Wolfgang Sawallisch and the Philadelphia Orchestra are concentrating on the output of this tortured genius and it will be exciting to hear these gems performed by a superb modern ensemble.

The 4th is the most notably affected by Schumann’s insecurities and subsequent tinkerings. Receiving what was, by all accounts, a substandard premiere by Mendelssohn’s understudy (although Schumann loyalist) Ferdinand David, the work languished in a drawer for ten years, only to finally emerge as an almost totally new and much more corpulent essay. Some years ago I heard the original version of the original version conducted by Christopher Hogwood; it was as if the piece had sprung sui generis from the crabbed corners of the composer’s mind, a fraternal twin of its more famous brother at best. Really this is different music. Part of the problem, of course, is that, like all orchestral musings of that era, it was written for much smaller forces than those considered standard today (the Gewandhaus consisted of 35 players at full strength before 1860) and is thus also subject to the slings and arrows of the period instrument crowd. With both the creator’s psychosis and the vagaries of instrumental fashion to overcome, it is a wonder that any of the initial conception even makes its way into our field of hearing, but this is what music making is all about: something that happens in the synaptic gap.

Wolfgang Sawallisch has done an excellent job as caretaker (in the best sense of the word) of that patented Philadelphia sound. What a pleasure it is to hear a fully fleshed out Schumann, dramatic and opulent, well fed and yet hungry at the same time. The Manfred, with its echoes of Egmont, was thrilling, subtle retrogrades of dynamics increasing the tension and power. These marvelous strings were an excellent compliment to the refined and graceful playing of Truls Mork, whose Domenico Montagnana cello is almost ebony from 300 years of maturation. A quiet conception of the noble concerto carried the full bodied orchestral sound down to a whisper at times and served to highlight the beauty of its delicate phrasings. The symphony was gorgeously performed, albeit a little weighted to the catgut side, the overwhelming string sound sometimes masking the fine woodwind work. However, the exhilarating horn calls came through soft and clear and the scherzo was as rollicking as any Leopold Mozart hunting piece. Great music, great sound, great spirit: a refreshing trip through the Black Forest.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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