By Paul Hyde
Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s recording of Schumann’s four symphonies with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe is a splendid addition to the numerous accounts of these works on disc. Working with smaller forces than one typically hears, Nézet-Séguin draws remarkably crisp, precise, and polished playing from the superb Chamber Orchestra of Europe.
This is a lean, unabashedly classical approach to Schumann’s symphonies. (Conductor Simon Rattle recently released his own similarly scaled-down version of the symphonies with the Berlin Philharmonic.)
Nézet-Séguin, a 39-year-old Canadian conductor who is music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Rotterdam Philharmonic, favors brisk tempos in these performances recorded live in Paris. His streamlined readings bring out considerable detail often lost in a thicker orchestral sound. (A video document of the project as it unfolded at the Cité de la Musique, with backstage comments from Nézet-Séguin, the audio team and individual musicians, is below.)
There are, however, trade-offs. While Nézet-Séguin’s driving tempos offer much appeal, one occasionally longs for a little more breathing space – for instance, in the third movement of the Second Symphony.
In addition, some big-orchestra grandeur is sacrificed. Indeed, not all fans of Schumann will appreciate this chamber orchestra version. For those who desire greater romantic sweep and fire, it’s hard to beat Leonard Bernstein’s justly celebrated live recordings of the Schumann symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic for DG.
But Nézet-Séguin offers, by contrast, abundant vigor and transparency. The Third Symphony (“Rhenish”) exemplifies his overall approach, reflecting classical grace and esprit rather than romantic majesty. The first movement bursts forth with bountiful joy. Nézet-Séguin brings a marvelous clarity to the interplay among the instruments throughout the symphony and there’s a delectable lightness to the tripping string passages in the second movement. The fourth movement’s evocation of Cologne Cathedral, meanwhile, is rendered with haunting gravity.
The Chamber Orchestra of Europe, exhibiting an excellent ensemble unity, makes some other recordings of the Schumann symphonies sound, by comparison, heavy and labored. Nézet-Séguin’s account of the First Symphony is indeed spring-like: sunny and breezy, with a warm second-movement Larghetto.
Nézet-Séguin has said that a chamber orchestra allowed him to capture the mercurial changes in Schumann’s music, which reflected the composer’s mental illness. Certainly, the conductor offers a forceful account of the Second Symphony, written when Schumann was suffering from depression and poor health. In the racing second movement, Nézet-Séguin emphasizes the idea of the composer chased by his demons.
Nézet-Séguin and the orchestra deliver the revised 1851 version of the Fourth Symphony with enormous zest. The big transitional climax before the finale of the fourth movement is not as powerful as one might prefer, but the Chamber Orchestra of Europe’s playing in the Fourth – and throughout the set – is incisive and immaculate.
[The Schumann recording is available from various online stores including Deutsche Grammophon, Amazon.com as an Audio CD or an MP3 download and also at iTunes and Spotify. See more at the Chamber Orchestra of Europe website.]
Paul Hyde is the arts writer with The Greenville (S.C.) News and Southeast editor of Classical Voice North America. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.