Robert Schumann: Complete Symphonies

Deutsche Radio Philharmonie/Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (Oehms Classical OC 741)

27 July 2009 4 stars

SchumannStanislaw Skrowaczewski has achieved remarkable acclaim in the recording studio over the past decade with laudatory complete cycles of the Bruckner and Beethoven symphonies. This was, perhaps, somewhat unexpected considering that these feats were accomplished not whilst at the helm of the Minneapolis Symphony or the Hallé Orchestra – renowned ensembles with which the Polish maestro had previously held the position of Music Director – but, rather, with the then-lesser-known and now non-existent Saarbrücken Radio Symphony Orchestra. Skrowaczewski was their Principal Guest Conductor for thirteen years from 1994, after which they merged with the equivalent ensemble in nearby Kaiserslautern and rebranded themselves as the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie. This most recent release represents a link in the amalgamation process. Schumann's First and Fourth symphonies were recorded in March 2007 with the SRSO, whereas the Second and Third were documented seven months later with the newly-formed DRP.

It quickly becomes evident in the B-flat-major First Symphony that Skrowaczewski maintains a two-pronged approach of the first order. On the one hand, he ensures that his musicians are instilled – and, thus, instil the listener – with the infectiously amicable nature of the music. This is, one immediately feels, an ensemble with real communicative personality, as every movement is exceedingly well characterised. The Scherzo is a flurry of lilt and inflection, and the closing Allegro animato e grazioso is notable for its animated woodwind solos. However, Skrowaczewski's focus on the whole does not prevent him from illuminating Schumann's scores with moments of exquisite detail. Hear, for example, the striking balance in the first violins' octave melody at the beginning of the same work's Larghetto, in which those playing the lower line dominate proceedings whilst those on top create a wispy, ethereal timbre with their hushed duplication eight notes above.

The First Symphony is arguably the zenith of this set, though solid cases can easily be put forward for the other three. Skrowaczewski navigates the idiosyncratic Fourth with aplomb, highlighting its cyclical elements in such a way that palpably links the four movements. The Second is full of desperation and despair despite its C-major key signature, a result of the composer's slow emergence from ill-health and depression whilst he wrote the work. The rendition of the work's nucleus – the desolate Adagio espressivo – vividly evokes these times without becoming a syrupy muddle of sentimentality. Amongst the Third's many highlights are the laid-back Scherzo, exuding all the carefree allure of a bucolic dance, and the mysterious fourth movement – an eerie soundworld residing somewhere between species counterpoint and Barber's Adagio for Strings – which viscously tumbles forth with weighty solemnity. The symphony is also noteworthy for some particularly ebullient brass playing.

It is clear from these performances that the strings – be they in the SRSO or the DRP – lack the sheen of those heard in the world's elite orchestras. However, what the ensembles may find wanting in polish and refinement is recompensed with an abundance of bustling fervour and spirit. The resultant tightly controlled ferment is aided throughout by a wonderfully wholesome acoustic which allows for full-bodied, effective tutti passages as well as the explication of the individual lines deftly coaxed to prominence by Skrowaczewski. Nowhere are these elements more unmistakable than in the Second Symphony's sweeping, folk-like finale and the triumphantly resolute opening Lebhaft of the Third, in which Skrowaczewski's riveting tempo sweeps us along as if propelled by the Rhine's most forceful torrents.

These performances are imbued with their conductor's inexorable joie de vivre, and possess a conspicuous sense of exhilaration and dynamism elusive to all but the finest musicians. Skrowaczewski and his orchestra(s) certainly prove admirable advocates of this enigmatic symphonist. An excellent addition to any CD collection.

By William Norris


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