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“Schumann: Complete Symphonies”
Robert Schumann: Symphony n° 1 in B‑Flat major (“Frühling”), opus 38 [1] – Symphony n° 2 in C major, opus 61 [2] – Symphony n° 3 in E‑Flat major (“Rheinische”), opus 97 [3] – Symphony n° 4 in D minor, opus 120 (rev. 1851) [4]

Hande Küden [1], Heike Janicke [2], Wolfgang Hentrich [3, 4] (guest concertmaster), Dresdner Philharmonie, Marek Janowski (conductor)
Recording: Kulturpalast Dresden, Germany (May 2021 [2, 3], August 2021  4], May-June 2023 [1]) – 130’17
SACD Pentatone PTC 5186989 (Distributed by Naxos of America) – Booklet in English and German

This set is my first encounter that I can recall with Dresden’s second orchestra, as it were. Compare these recordings to those of the Staatskapelle Dresden under Christian Thielemann in the same music, released by Sony in 2019, and it is easy to see why the Dresdner Philharmonie is the less famous ensemble: the strings are not quite silken of tone; brass and horns are a bit thin; woodwind solos are not always the last word in color or character, although the principal flute is excellent. Even so, the group plays very well, and (most importantly to me), with a rather old‑fashioned Central European warmth and a sonority built on rich, characterful lower strings. Pentatone’s unimpeachable sound—warm, vivid and exceptionally detailed—makes this sonority easy to enjoy even as it brings the slight lack of tonal unanimity and blend into relief.

That warmth, as contentious and vague a critical term as it may be, is, to me, in some way the best thing about these performances, because conductor Marek Janowski is at his best when encouraging his players to phrase lyrical passages with a natural, flexible sense of expression. He is less effective in dealing with some of these symphonies’ potentially awkward aspects. I don’t mean Schumann’s much‑reviled clogged and monochromatic scoring—no problem with clarity of textures here; if anything, the bass line is sometimes too prominent when providing accompanying figures, perhaps an engineering quirk—but the foursquare rhythms and an occasionally rhetorical approach to symphonic drama. These are most noticeable, I think, in the Fourth, whose outer movements in particular include a lot of uninspired but heroic-sounding thematic material that gets repeated a few times too many. There are some wonderful themes here too, of course, and the whole piece can be tremendously effective and moving—provided the rhetoric is conveyed with flair, or more precisely a kind of headlong impetuosity mixed with grandeur. Janowski does too little to lift this music off the page, in spite of the frequent musicality and even liveliness of the performance. The effect can be plodding—and the homage to Beethoven’s Fifth that serves as a transition to the Finale, while handled well enough here if not spine-tinglingly, leads to perhaps the most primly stated D‑major triumph I have heard.

Fortunately, the rest of the cycle, in which Schumann’s lyrical inspiration is more consistent (and his forms less concise), fares better, even though the conducting is sometimes rhythmically stiff or less propulsive than it might be; at least the phrasing is never fussy, as it feels, at times, in the Thielemann set mentioned above. Sometimes it is as though Janowski is just letting his very musical musicians play, and the results are not revelatory but satisfying, and not without enthusiasm. The “Rhenish” comes off especially well, a work whose outer movements start off with wonderful themes that Schumann isn’t quite sure how to develop in an interesting way and can thus feel plodding or meandering, and inner movements that require a special touch to come alive. The fourth movement’s depiction of Cologne Cathedral is too light on its feet, not imposing enough—but, otherwise, Janowski really clicks with the score, striking the right balance between buoyance and urgency. The “Spring” is almost as good in its slightly restrained way, and if the Second in Janowski’s hands turns foursquare at times, it still has things to enjoy; it feels less tepid than Janowski’s Fourth, both works finding Schumann at his most dramatically intense.

Overall, this set does not have enough orchestral brilliance or interpretive interest to really stand out, except, perhaps, for audiophiles. But it is a good listen, especially in the first three symphonies. What a musical city Dresden must be.

Samuel Wigutow




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