SCHUMANN: The Four Symphonies (Opp. 38,
61, 97, 120)
Bamberg Symphony; Christoph Eschenbach/cond.
Virgin Classics 61884 (2 CDs) [DDD] [B] TT: 69:02 & 73:55
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MOZART: Sinfonia concertante in E-flat, K.364/320d. Concerto for
Violin and Piano in D, K.Anh.56 (315f; reconstructed by Philip Wilby)
Concerto. GLASS: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra.
Prior to1912, and since 1993, the century-old Philadelphia Orchestra has had three German-born music directors: Fritz Scheel, Carl Pohlig, and currently Wolfgang Sawallisch. In between, Leopold Stokowki, Eugene Ormandy (the longest tenure of all, 1936-80), and Riccardo Muti presided famously. The 2003-04 season will bring another German leader: Christoph Eschenbach, born in March 1940 in the Sileasian capital of Breslau (today Wroclaw, Poland). For 11 seasons he was music director at Houston (1988-99), and currently serves as principal conductor of Hamburg's NDR Orchestra. He is also the new maître of Orchestre de Paris, and longer-term music director of the Chicago Symphony's summertime Ravinia Festival concerts, plus artistic director of the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival that Leonard Bernstein founded. Before he took up the baton (and removed a toupee), Eschenbach was the finest of postwar Germany's solo pianists, with a discography that includes all the sonatas of Beethoven and Mozart for DGG. His recordings with Karajan and the Berlin Phil are likely candidates for reissue -- assuming, of course, that the classical record business worldwide is dormant rather than dead.
Starting as his own conductor of Mozart concertos in the '70s, Eschenbach has built a large catalog of temperamentally distinguished discs on a variety of labels (as the headnote attests, without being anywhere near complete). Oldest of the above are the Schumann symphonies (which, according to a program-book bio in Telarc's recording of the Adams and Glass concertos, he re-recorded with Houston for future release). In these four dating from April 1990 and June 1991, the Bamberger Symphoniker has never sounded lovelier (as Louella Parsons used to write of Marion Davies, long before Eschenbach was born). Furthermore, recorded sound is a match for their lithe, astonishingly lucid, interpretively clairvoyant performances.
A lot of conductors have recorded Schumann's four symphonies (a large number of which are missing from Volume 12 of Schwann /Opus, rumored in the business to be the last, or second-to-last edition of stateside classical-music's New Testament). Those remaining are one and all on the weighty side, from Bernstein's old-age wallow with the Vienna Phil and Klemperer's elephantine readings at an even older age, to Szell's and von Dohnányi's, both with the Cleveland Orchestra (different eras, different temperaments, different companies). I don't know -- nor feel an urge to discover -- the late Sinopoli's set on DGG from Dresden, or Eliahu Inbal's on Philips with the same London New Phil that played a couple of Klemperer's performances. I lived comfortably for years with vintage Sawallisch on EMI (now out-of-print), but kept Schwarz's Seattle set on Delos for Schumann's original, unretouched scoring as well as its interpretive forthrightness.
Eschenbach, though, has blown me away to the extent that I've listened several times -- even to the "Rhenish" Third, which I've never much cared for -- and compared all four to single performances long treasured: Koussevitzky's Boston "Spring" (except that it suddenly sounds sluggish compared to Eschenbach), Reiner's Second (with both the NBC and Chicago Symphonies on specialty labels), and Furtw”ngler's incomparable Fourth (or so I thought). Eschenbach's sense of the "right" tempo, appropriate sonority, dynamic gradation and structural progression leave me astounded, apart from moments in the "Spring" that seem either held back (at the very start) or abruptly pulled-up (later on in the first movement). No. 1 is the fleetest of his four, with a manic ardor the composer surely experienced in the first year of his marriage. The "Rhenish" follows on disc 1, so persuasively that the music really does sound like a symphony instead of a suite (à la Dvorák's much-later ones) or a serenade (the model, in effect, for Brahms' First in D, Op. 11). Of especial beauty is the Cologne Cathedral movement, magisterial without high clerical drag or a hint of pomposity. Disc 2 begins with the Second Symphony, whose Adagio espressivo slow movement is heartbreakingly beautiful. Symphony No. 4 (originally composed in 1841, rewritten a decade later) completes the set, and not even Furtw”ngler surpassed Eschenbach's transition between the third and final movements -- one of the greatest moments in reams of superb music that Schumann composed in a too-short lifetime.
No matter how many Schumann symphonies you have, collectively or individually, this set is essential.
The Mozart, recorded at Hamburg in the early autumn of 2000, is startlingly bolder in sound, and just a little colder -- by no means disqualifyingly but nonetheless beefy. No original instruments here with gut strings, led by a self-aggrandizing harpsichordist or "old music" specialist. This is a contemporary orchestra, just as the soloists are superlative contemporary artists in the service of Mozart. The Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola is over-represented in Schwann /Opus 12 -- given so many gaps that grow larger in every issue -- with six other versions on Sony alone. My favorites in this most mature of Mozart's works before 1780, however, remain Arthur Grumiaux and Arrigo Pellicia in a Philips duopack (with the five authentic violin concertos inimitably played by Grumiaux), and Benjamin Britten's impassioned reading (once on a London SD; now "live" on a BBC Legends CD coupled with Sviatoslav Richter's carbohydrated Piano Concerto No. 22). That said, Eschenbach's new one ranks among the next finest, with the special bonus of a 1778 Violin and Piano Concerto begun by Mozart in Mannheim but dropped after120 bars. Philip Wilby has "reconstructed" it uncannily, using the second and third movements of the Violin/Piano Sonata K.306, likewise in D, scored for the same instruments in Mozart's first-movement fragment. As played by Midori and her pianist-conductor it is ebullient, whether or not "authentic." Given what Wagner and Mahler did to Beethoven's symphonies, what the same Mahler and Frederick Stock did to Schumann's, and what several since Deryck Cooke's death have done to the Mahler 10th (not to mention shabby attempts to make an "Elgar Third Symphony" from a few fragments, or putative Tenth Symphonies by Beethoven and Schubert), Wilby has done miraculously, I'd say, even if the recording as produced by Stephen Epstein sounds a little more ponderous than echt Mozart these days.
I've had scant respect over the years for John Adams' jingoistic pieces, and virtually none for Philip Glass' operas and film scores, but their respective violin concertos are worthy additions to the better ones written in the prolific century recently ended. Adams' 1993 score incoprorates an element of rhapsody, delicately embroided, full of harmonic imagination and quiet surprises that make listening delightful and sometimes deeper (until its regressively kitsch finale) - especially in Robert McDuffie's immaculate solo performance with Eschenbach conducting hand in glove, rather than in Gidon Kremer's earlier version on Nonesuch with Kent Nagano and the London SO (originally coupled with Shaker Loops). The Glass Concerto of 1987 is sterner stuff. Apart from an irritating trombone ostinato in the slow movement, it is a latter-day Baroque construct, welcomely free of Glass-eyed mannerisms and stun-gun tranquilizers. This too has been recorded by Kremer (plus the Bernstein Serenade and Rorem Concerto) with Dohnányi conducting the plucky but unidiomatic Vienna Phil. Naxos has recently issued a recording by Adele Anthony with Takeo Yuasa conducting the admirable Ulster Orchestra which, sorry to say, I don't know. I'll risk an opinion, however, that McDuffie wins the gold since he is America's most underrated solo violinist, and that Eschenbach is a silver medal accompanist. Telarc's recorded sound is typical of Houston's Jones Hall, up there with the company's best -- a domestic pacesetter alongside Reference Recordings, both arguably unbettered in the world.
In all of these discs, Eschenbach demonstrates both the musicianship and authority to restore the Philadelphia Orchestra's bygone luster, more or less subdued since the middle '80s. Without current competition from the Boston Symphony of Ozawa's debilitated years, the doughty New York under boring Kurt Masur, or Barenboozled Chicago, Philadelphia and Eschenbach promise music-making of Stokowski and Ormandy caliber in their respective primes -- if its new home in the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, to be unveiled in December 2001, proves to be a distinguished hall acoustically.
Meanwhile, everything here is recommended, the Schumann urgently so.