ROBERT SCHUMANN COMPLETE SYMPHONIC WORKS:
Vol. 4: Violin Concerto / Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin. Piano Concerto / Dénes Várjon, piano; WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln; Heinz Holliger, conductor / Audite 97.717
Vol. 5: Konzertstücke for Piano & Orchestra: in d min., Op. 134 & G Major, Op. 92 / Alexander Lonquich, piano. Fantasy for Violin & Orchestra / Patricia Kopatchinskaja, violin. Konzertstück four Four Horns & Orchestra / Paul van Zelm, Ludwig Rast, Rainer Jurkiewicz & Joachim Pöltl, horns; WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln; Heinz Holliger, conductor / Audite 97.718
Vol. 6: Symphony in g min., “Zwickauer;” Overtures: “Manfred,” Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, Goethe’s “Hermann und Dorothea,””Genoveva,” Schiller’s “The Bride of Messina,” Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” / WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln; Heinz Holliger, conductor / Audite 97.705
Here, at last, are the final three installments in Heinz Holliger’s survey of the complete orchestral works of Schumann. After a hiatus of nearly two years, Vols. 4 and 5 were released in April and Vol. 6 in May. It’s rather puzzling since these recordings certainly appear to have been made early enough to have been released in 2015, and the mystery deepens when one realizes that the catalog number of Vol. 6 actually comes between Vols. 3 and 4, yet somehow it was determined that it be issued last.
All the CD covers say “Symphonic Works,” but except for the four numbered symphonies (including both versions of No. 4) and the short, two-movement early symphony stuck in the middle of Vol. 6, these are really “orchestral works” as they include all of the Konzertstücke, Concertos (excepting the composer’s arrangement for violin of the Cello Concerto), Fantasies and Overtures. It’s really quite a haul, and a real treat for those of us who recognized in Schumann a truly original and individual composer whose output, though of lesser volume than Schubert, is more startlingly original and, in many places, more modern in concept for its time. Aiding Holliger in his presentation of these interesting and sometimes challenging scores is a lean, enthusiastic orchestra who seems to revel in the conductor’s straightforward but exciting interpretations.
Judging a complete set of any composer’s works, particularly that of a famous composer whose work has been available in various recordings over the past century, is always a matter—for me, anyway—of both personal preference and a bit of compromise. For instance, I fully admit that the complete Beethoven Symphony sets of Toscanini and Michael Gielen are touchstones for me, but I also like other performances by those two conductors from different years not included in the sets as well as performances by other conductors recorded over the years. The same is true of Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s magnificent set of the complete Schubert Symphonies, and the same is true, for me, of this Schumann series. I really love, for instance, Toscanini’s rendition of the “Rhenish” Symphony, Guido Cantelli’s performance with the Boston Symphony of the Fourth Symphony, Klaus Tennstedt’s recording of the Konzertstück for 4 Horns, Igor Oistrakh’s version of the Violin Concerto and both Dinu Lipatti’s and Van Cliburn’s recordings of the Piano Concerto, and for me the Holliger renditions—though very good, and certainly in better sound—seem to be just a shade below these, but if you had no knowledge of these recordings you’d be thrilled by most of these performances. Online reviews of Vol. IV have some very unkind things to say of Patricia Kopatchinskaja in particular. I found her tone a bit unusual, very lean and bright, almost (but not quite) a bit edgy, but her intensity of expression and superb control of her instrument won me over. I was less thrilled with pianist Dénes Várjon in the piano concerto; he’s a fine, clean pianist, but to me lacks a point of view in this music, which Kopatchinskaja has in spades. Apparently Holliger thought the same thing, because in the Vol. 5 Konzertstücke Várjon was replaced by Alexander Lonquich, whose warm tone, deep-in-the-keys touch and loving phrasing really makes his instrument sing. Happily, Kopatchinskaja returns for her Fantasy, and once again gives 110%. You’ve got to love these Russian violinists, regardless of age or schooling: they don’t seem to know how to play music dispassionately!
As a rule, Holliger’s approach to this music is on the brisk side (which I like) but without much in the way of rubato or other tempo modification. This is in keeping with the modern view towards Romantic music, a trend that started with Roger Norrington’s Beethoven Symphonies way back when (a set that I actually liked, though not as much as Toscanini or Gielen). Within these parameters, however, I do hear some occasional moments of interest—not moments in which Holliger pulls back on the tempo, but moments when he ever-so-slightly abbreviates the note values to make it sound as if he is temporarily playing faster. It’s the kind of approach that works well in not only Schumann but also in Beethoven and Berlioz. I wonder if Holliger has any plans or ideas to work on Berlioz next? We could certainly use a great modern recording of Harold in Italy or the Symphonies Funèbre et Trionphale.
Despite the slight nits I have picked in the above review, I still come down on the side of this series of recordings as being benchmark Schumann. I can say without fear of contradiction that anyone coming to the composer’s orchestral scores for the first time will not be at all disappointed by any of these performances, not even Várjon’s piano concerto, although he or she will certainly be more enthralled by the concerto recordings of Lipatti, Cliburn, or Annie Fischer. What I mean by this is that although there are better recordings of some of these works out there, none of these performances are so poor as to let the music down or misrepresent it. Moreover, the almost explosive performances of the Overtures in Vol. 6 will have you on the edge of your seat from first note to last. And that is a compliment I cannot better.
One final thought in closing: it seems to me a bit ironic that a man who was part of the original “historically-informed” movement of the late 1960s-early ‘70s, as the world’s leading oboe virtuoso, should eschew the constant use of straight tone that his successors all seem to think is the only way to play music nowadays. In its place, what I hear is a fast, tight vibrato in the playing of all concerned (which is probably why he so enjoyed using Kopatchinskaja as a soloist—her conception of string tone fits right in with the orchestra’s, as does the wonderful playing of Oren Shevlin in the Cello Concerto on Vol. III), which achieves much the same effect without making the orchestra sound like a bunch of anemic, whining snivelers. I say bravo to Holliger for having the courage to stick by his guns on this issue, and I hope that others in the HIP movement—at least, those who remember Holliger when he was the world’s leading early-music virtuoso on oboe—will take a cue from him. But somehow, I doubt it.
— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley