Dudamel Begins Schumann Cycle On Promising Note

Big orchestras and little orchestras are having a go at Schumann’s symphonies. Now it’s the LA Philharmonic’s turn.
(Detail from a 1839 lithograph by Joseph Kriehuber)
By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES — There is a Schumann symphony boom going on, a delayed reaction to his bicentennial in 2010 that has snowballed in the last few years. Big orchestras and little orchestras are having at it. One new cycle of the symphonies after another has come out on discs since 2013, led by Simon Rattle, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Robin TicciatiChristian Zacharias, Heinz Holliger, Michael Tilson Thomas, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, and a few others. And everyone seems to be out to bypass or refute the old saw that Schumann didn’t know how to orchestrate.

Gustavo Dudamel has begun a Schumann cycle with the LA Phil.
(© Mark Hanauer)

Now it’s Gustavo Dudamel’s turn. The 37-year-old Venezuelan, who loves to immerse himself in complete symphony cycles, started yet another Schumann series at Walt Disney Concert Hall May 17 with his Los Angeles Philharmonic. These performances were also being recorded for possible future release — no word yet as to when and for what label. Whether Dudamel, too, is trying to prove a point about Schumann is hard to discern, for he has said nothing in public. The proof has to be in the listening.

The idea behind much of this zeal to revisit Schumann is to clarify what he wrote so that his streams of great musical ideas can burst forth more directly. These days, Schumann is, more often than not, played with a lighter touch quite at odds with the congested, heavy-set approach that once prevailed. Some, like Nézet-Séguin, Zacharias, and Ticciati, have used chamber orchestras to thin out the textures. MTT’s solution was to have the large orchestra morph into a chamber group and back again, depending upon the situation.

For Schumann’s Piano Concerto, played by Mitsuko Uchida, the orchestra downsized.
(Geoffroy Scheid, Arts Management Group)

Dudamel tried it both ways on this occasion, using a chamber-sized orchestra for Mitsuko Uchida’s performance of the Piano Concerto and expanding to a larger orchestra in the Symphony No. 1, which Schumann himself called the Frühlings — or Spring — Symphony.

The most striking feature of these performances — the symphony in particular — was how the music of Schumann seemed to alter the sound of Disney Hall itself. The resonance of the room was more pronounced somehow, the timbre of the brasses seemed different as they continued to dominate the textures. Principal timpanist Joseph Pereira used smaller-tipped mallets on the drum heads, clearing the air temporarily with the rifle-crack sounds associated with 18th-century period instrument bands. The high-definition acoustics of Disney Hall did what they could to clarify the orchestrations, resulting in a unique timbre I’ve never experienced in this space.

On disc: A Schumann boom

There was plenty of room for Dudamel to lean headlong into the Allegros and Vivaces of the Spring Symphony. He doesn’t characterize the phrasings and accents of individual instrumental lines sharply enough yet — listen to Leonard Bernstein’s Vienna Philharmonic account on Deutsche Grammophon for a master class on that — but there was plenty of dash and spirit in the wonderfully joyful finale. There were a handful of rough spots in the Philharmonic’s execution — looks like they’ll need another take for the recording — but just a handful; everything else sounded shipshape.

The Uchida fan base turned out in full force, cheering her entrance loudly and at length, and she responded with a forceful opening flourish followed by ethereal, heavily pedaled drifting. She continued in a poetic manner throughout much of the concerto, often lingering soulfully over every note, producing some attractive colors with the touch of a butterfly. Dudamel pretty much followed her lead, adopting somewhat leisurely tempos and aiming for a flowing performance without much of his customary solid rhythm. (For what it’s worth, he used a score in the concerto, none in the symphony.)

Although Uchida’s playing was of considerable beauty and refinement, with some muscle when needed, I confess to not being particularly moved. The fan base thought otherwise; they yelled their approval and wouldn’t let her go without an encore. Finally she responded with a wisp of one –—the tiny, gentle “Aveu” from Schumann’s Carnaval.

Uchida returned with the Piano Concerto and Dudamel took up the Symphony No. 2 over the weekend (May 19-20). Dudamel continues the cycle with the Symphony No. 3 (Rhenish) May 24-25 and leads the Symphony No. 4 May 26-27, coupled on all four dates with the Genoveva Overture and cellist Sol Gabetta playing the Cello Concerto. Members of the orchestra also play an all-Schumann chamber music concert May 22.

On June 1-3, with the symphonies put to bed, Dudamel takes up a real rarity, the oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri, to close his “Schumann Focus” series. The LA Phil will be joined by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, video artist Refik Anadol, and six vocal soloists. In another of the LA Phil’s many attempts to give concert classics a visual interpretation, the oratorio will be staged by Peter Sellars, who reportedly was thinking of basing his staging on an exhibit of Chinese caves along the Silk Road that he visited in 2016 at the Getty Museum in Brentwood. Will it work? Watch this space.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.