Schumann’s four symphonies are in certain ways the orchestral equivalent of road-hogs. They steam along in their own world – sending everyone around them into crazy manoeuvres left and right. The arguments still rage. Are they poorly orchestrated? Probably not, but people think they are because they are often poorly played. Should they be played in “period” style? Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t... However much we debate their nature, they remain among the most challenging and elusive of romantic symphonic works. As Michael Tilson Thomas, the doughty conductor of this new set, has said, they are “a preserve for endangered emotions”.
The first, the ‘Spring’ Symphony, really does evoke springtime – the nickname is deliberate. No.4 was the second to be written, but Schumann created it in one unbroken span and Clara, his wife, thought this a little too experimental for comfort. Therefore he put it away for years and only much later revised it into four movements and published it (later still, when Brahms discovered the early version and had it published in its own right, Clara was so angry that she did not speak to him for several years). Schumann’s last symphony was the five-movement No.3, the ‘Rhenish’, written after Schumann and family moved to the Rhineland area. The proximity of the house to the great river nearly proved fatal when Schumann experienced his final mental collapse and attempted suicide in its waters.
For Tilson Thomas, the route into Schumann’s symphonies seems to be Beethoven. There would be good reason for this: Beethoven was unquestionably among Schumann’s strongest influences, whether in terms of the latter’s experimentation with form or the way he drew on the song cycle ‘An die ferne Geliebte’ in his youth for coded messages to Clara. Tilson Thomas draws out Beethovenian qualities even in the ‘Spring’ Symphony – its closest model perhaps being the other composer’s ‘Pastoral’: for instance, he brings the first movement a rustic, earthy drive that calls to mind the earlier symphony’s opening.
In general, Tilson Thomas makes sure rhythms are strongly marked and especially the off-beat ones that so much resemble Beethoven’s. Some are nevertheless defined with a rather broad brush and could have a bit more spring in their step; and at times one could wish for more contrast. For example, while the slow movement of the Symphony No.2 is deeply lyrical and heartbreaking, a more dynamic approach to the scherzo preceding could have brought out the hint at manic-depression that possibly lurks behind it. In the ‘Rhenish’, again the doom-laden slow movement is the most satisfying, yet the outermost movements seem slightly low-key – and one thing Schumann had by the gallon was energy. Personally I could wish at times for a lighter touch, more textural clarity and generally more dynamism. But, to come full circle, we could argue about these symphonies forever.