Berlin PO Blazes Own Trail With Schumann Discs

Schumann's symphonies constitute the first project of Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings
Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings has launched with the Schumann symphonies under principal conductor Simon Rattle.
By Nancy Malitz

In recording circles, May 2014 will be remembered as the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s new spring. A beautifully produced, splendidly packaged, and sonically sparkling Schumann project, featuring all four symphonies in several formats under principal conductor Simon Rattle, is the orchestra’s first venture as a go-it-alone label, Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings, following the lead of the San Francisco Symphony and half a dozen other orchestras in Europe and the U.S. The linen-bound Berlin set is a collector’s dream, and a musician’s, too.

Rattle conducts the symphonies with Mendelssohn-side forces.
Rattle conducts the symphonies with Mendelssohn-size forces.

Reflective of Rattle’s conviction that Schumann had a Mendelssohn-sized orchestra in his head — and that his symphonies are capable of that Mendelssohnian fleetness, fineness, and clarity of texture — the performances move along at a clip that will surprise many. The whole is sharply focused and very convincing. One can view the live concert recordings as HD video, play them on two audio CDs, or download them at even higher resolution (192kHz/24bit) using an accompanying code, and all formats are a testament to the seemingly effortless precision that characterizes the Philharmonic’s standard of playing. In the set’s bonus materials, which include a conversation with Rattle, the conductor speaks with great respect for Wilhelm Furtwängler’s 1953 Deutsche Grammophon recording of the Fourth Symphony (at Jesus-Christus-Kirche), which is a favorite among collectors still. (The Furtwängler recording he speaks of is listenable here.) Furtwängler’s performance was based on the revised edition that Schumann created for himself to conduct with the Düsseldorf Symphony in 1851, ten years after the disastrous premiere of the original version, with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Ferdinand David. At 61 years apart, Rattle’s light, exuberant, youthful Fourth — based on the 1841 original — is a neat bookend to Furtwängler’s reading and also what’s most indicative of the new recording project’s special nature. Rattle makes a brilliant case for the 1841 original even as the 1851 revision is still being recorded and remains the version most widely performed. (In March, Deutsche Grammophon released the complete Schumann symphonies with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, following the more frequently traveled course.)

Robert Schumann in 1939. (Joseph Kriehuber)
Robert Schumann, shortly before his marriage to Clara. (J. Kriehuber)

Written after Schumann had completed the Second and Third Symphonies, the 1851 revision explains the skewed numbering system that gives the impression his Fourth came last. In fact the writing of the Fourth symphony came second, right after the First Symphony, in a manic flush of creativity in 1841, the year following his marriage to Clara Schumann. Eventually Clara came to favor the 1851 solution, insisting that the original was just a sketch, and she was furious in 1891 when Brahms published the original in its 50th anniversary year, arguing for its superiority. A yearlong rift in their friendship ensued, and she never fully forgave him. Given the grandeur of late 19th-century musical style generally, Clara’s preference can be understood. But Rattle makes his own case — in performance, and in a spoken essay that’s a part of the Schumann set — that Brahms had it right. Although presenting formidable obstacles for the players, the Fourth might have succeeded at the outset, Rattle argues, had Mendelssohn — “probably the first great conductor there was” — taken charge of the premiere as he had for Schumann’s First. The new work represented a compositional breakthrough on Schumann’s part, and not just because it was written without pauses between the movements, Rattle says in his commentary:

Schumann's Fourth, original 1841 orchestration.
Schumann’s Fourth, original 1841 version, “lightness, grace and beauty.”

“He was trying to find a new style of writing, and so it is astonishingly difficult to play in its original version. The strings are scampering around the instruments in a way like Janáček makes them do. It’s tremendously tricky and even the Gewandhaus couldn’t do it, and so he had a crisis about the piece and put it aside. And later (in 1850) he went to Düsseldorf — which was not a very good orchestra — to be the conductor, and he was not a very good conductor. So he made a version for a not very good orchestra, which in Britain we’d call ‘with belts and braces,’ which means the trousers had both the belt and the suspenders so it can’t possibly fall down. And this means that everybody plays all the time, so this is one problem.

Schumann's Symphony No. 4, 1851 revision
Schumann’s Symphony No. 4, 1851 revision, “darkness and obsession.”

“But the more extraordinary thing is that he can take basically the same material, the same notes, and make a symphony which is full of lightness and grace and beauty into a symphony of darkness and obsession and, indeed, oppression … which is the version we all grew up with and listened to. Even the beginning, which in the original says Andante con moto, is in the second version not only more heavily orchestrated but it’s written Ziemlich langsam. I don’t know of another case in music history where the entire character of a piece has been changed by somebody’s mental state.”

Schumann in 1850, a darker time. (Wiki Commons)
Schumann in 1850, a darker time. (Wiki Commons)

Rattle says he told the orchestra to remember that Schumann composed the symphony when he was manic and that he revised it when he was depressive, and the music mirrors the mental state. “So of course we had to get used to playing it in a very different way. Mostly the piece is joyful and explosive and impulsive and impatient. The music simply never stops for breath. He keeps writing this ‘nach und nach schneller’ — moving more and more, accelerando — which in his early music is absolutely the key. He can’t wait for it to go to the end, and in fact it ends in a burst of fireworks, simply astonishing. “So for me, now, I would look at his revised version, but I would never want to play it again, because somehow it’s for me an upsetting mirror into his psychology. It looks and sounds like someone who is desperately ill, more valuable as a psychological document than as a piece. For me the music is the symphony we hear (on this recording), strange, hard, difficult as it is.”

The Berlin Philharmonic's Digital Concert Hall
The Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall is also an interview and concert archive.

The Schumann set costs about $70. Although the program notes in the printed book accompanying the set are absolutely clear, they are spare. Yet the Berlin Philharmonic has for years recorded various intermission features, often in the form of probing video interviews, to go along with its concerts at Digital Concert Hall, its simulcast site. Some of them are included on these discs, and listeners are also pointed to the Philharmonic’s web operation in some smart cross-marketing. It’s indeed time to take another look at the wealth of digital material now available for browsing and download at Digital Concert Hall, quite a bit of it free even though some of it is behind Berlin’s pay door. There’s an old saying in technological circles that the cutting edge is also the bleeding edge, and because the Philharmonic got into the business of simulcasting early — 2008 — it has lost its share of blood in its attempt to solve for itself almost every problem you can imagine — from website design and bandwidth headaches at the consumer end, to navigating international spec variances and rights regulations, to keeping up with the changes in technology and figuring out how much people are willing to pay. The effort has been compared to mastering NFL HD broadcasts, but without the budget, and with the additional complication that most music lovers had their TV in the den, their computer in the office, and their high-quality sound system somewhere else again. Yet the Philharmonic has been in digital for the long haul, and that promises to continue even as its century-long link with Deutsche Grammophon wanes along with other outside label associations. The Philharmonic has made it clear that it expects to continue recording with prominent soloists who have their own label deals, but that the core symphonic repertory will be groomed and maintained on Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings. Forthcoming releases include Bach’s St. John Passion, conducted by Rattle and staged by Peter Sellars, and a complete cycle of Schubert’s symphonies conducted Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who in March was named an honorary member of the orchestra for providing “a new perspective on the works of the great masters of the 18th and 19th centuries (and arousing) curiosity about the stylistic realities beyond the scores.” Consistent with the Schumann package at hand, these are big plans that signal a bold beginning for the Philharmonic’s first season of independent recordings. Nancy Malitz is the publisher of Chicago On the Aisle, the founding music critic at USA Today and a former cultural columnist for The Detroit News. She has written about the arts for a variety of national publications.