Schumann: Symphonies Nos 3 and 4

Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra; Sakari Oramo (Sony Music 88697646872)

18 June 20113 stars

SchumannThe booklet that accompanies the second chapter of Sakari Oramo's interpretation of Schumann's symphonies declares that the 'RSPO actively strives to renew the classical repertoire' and 'regularly plays contemporary music and commissions new works'. Exciting as this may sound, and promising as was the first part of Oramo's homage to the composer who celebrated his bicentenary last year, this second installment does not achieve quite as much as recent acclaimed Romantic readings by Oramo and the orchestra of which he has been Chief Conductor for three years.

Indeed, one might suggest that it is the orchestra's close association with the classical and contemporary repertoire which weakens these live performances. The ensemble is extremely tight, articulation is religiously attended to and the instrumental sections are well balanced. But herein lies the problem: Oramo's account of these symphonies, especially the third, feels safe. There is energy, but the sense of emotion, vigour and risk that usually complement Oramo's work, and arguably should accompany any interpretation of the Romantic repertoire, is not highly evidenced here.

That is not to say that the RSPO does not capture the spirit of the Rhineland, after which the Third symphony was titled. One can imagine the rural setting and the more lyrical second and third movements certainly evoke a sense of the pastoral. However, there is perhaps a little too much of the pomp of ceremony, which Schumann may have witnessed on his trip to the region, and not enough of the spirit and vivacity which also usually  accompany works which conjure scenes of fertility and abundance. For example, the beginning of the Third seems ponderous when it should be buoyant and although the balance between instrumental sections is never flawed, the same full sound continues across movements – the orchestral palette seems barely touched.

It is clear that the RSPO was more comfortable performing the Fourth Symphony than the Third. With this work we get more than a taste of the skill of both orchestra and conductor and, what is more, the risk that evaded the Third is far more in force in the Fourth. It is markedly more convincing; rubato is not merely attended to but felt throughout and the build-up of tension between wind, strings and brass in the finale make for exciting listening. Dynamics also play a more prominent role in this symphony and the wholesome string sound which appeared to lessen the excitement of the Third Symphony is this time accompanied by a drive which allows the Fourth to come alive. However, Oramo never entirely lets loose and therefore a slight sense of the routine persists. Even the final chords, including the fourth from end which has attached to it one of only two sfzs in the entire symphony, simply fade and die.

Overall, this is more than a fair representation of the works at hand. What is disappointing is that it is simply a fair representation of the RSPO and Oramo. The first disc of symphonies, and an extremely successful three-year relationship, has led many in the musical community to have high expectations of this collaboration. Perhaps this time they were just too comfortable with one another. The lust had, hopefully only in the short-term, subsided a little.

By Fiona Gibbs

3 stars