Several weeks ago I wrote off the symphonies of Robert Schumann as some of music’s “most honorable failures.” Esa-Pekka Salonen had performed the “Rhenish” Symphony in an acceptable but hardly stirring manner — as he had the “Spring” Symphony a year before — and I came away convinced that, for all its melodic strengths, this repertory defies salvation. Part of the blame lies in Schumann’s turgid orchestration, with nice tunes threaded into a dense contrapuntal underbrush of strings, winds and brass bustling around to no apparent purpose except to thicken the texture; more of the blame lies in the music’s tendency to run out of gas, notes piled upon notes, rushing madly but going nowhere at all — the last movement of the “Rhenish” as a case in point. Now there is a new recording — the four completed symphonies, two not-quite symphonies, the Konzertstück for Four Horns and the seldom-played early version of the Fourth Symphony — in a three-disc box from Deutsche Grammophon, with John Eliot Gardiner conducting his “Revolutionary and Romantic” Orchestra. I cannot go so far as to suggest that Gardiner’s perform ances completely contradict my long-held views on Schumann’s orchestral compositions, but they are certainly the most persuasive presentations of this music I could ever hope to hear.
The orchestra itself can take credit, an ensemble of about 50 players drawn from the British freelance bunch who know how to deliver authentic-sounding Bach under Christopher Hogwood one night and an authentic early-Romantic sound under Roger Norrington or Gardiner the next. Of the dozen-or-so complete sets of the Schumann symphonies (why so many?), I would place Gardiner’s emphatically at the top. I would accord the same position for Gardiner’s set of the Beethoven symphonies (also on DG), challenged among the so-called “historically informed” versions only by the daredevil performances under Nikolaus Harnoncourt on Teldec. I also delight in word that Gardiner and this marvelous orchestra are booked into the Orange County Performing Arts Center in May 1999 for a complete unfolding of the Sacred Nine. On my “best ever” list I must also include Gardiner’s reading of the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique; without falling into the scholarship-for-its-own-sake exercise, he draws from that orchestra exactly the right mix of exquisite, innovative sonority and irresistible forward impulse.
There is nothing “exquisite” in Schumann’s symphonies; for that quality in his orchestral works, you’d have to turn to his Piano Concerto, which succeeds primarily by sounding like chamber music writ large — as made gloriously apparent by Alfred Brendel in his performance last week with the Philharmonic (but more about Brendel next time). What makes these Gardiner performances work is the exuberance in his tempos and his phrasing; he can even transmute the bathos of the slow movement of the Second Symphony into a progression both ardent and sane.
The high point of the set is the chance it affords to compare the Fourth (D minor) Symphony in Schumann’s original scoring from 1841 with the revision he was talked into making (mostly by Clara) 10 years later. The early version is by far the better; even Johannes Brahms, himself no slouch at glutinous scoring, preferred it. Its orchestra is clean and lean; it is the work of a composer in a state of high exhilaration (a year after his marriage to Clara), aware that the Beethoven Nine has been a watershed in the evolution of large-scale orchestral music, and eager to invent new forms to contain his new ideas. There isn’t much difference between the two versions in the tunes themselves; what is different is the strength of the scoring, the absence of the clutter in the 1841 version that was to make the rest of Schumann’s orchestral music (including the Manfred Overture, which was also on the Philharmonic program last week) sometimes sound like wet blotting paper.
I’ve pretty much had it with Sir Edward Elgar. Sure, there’s a certain news value in the Violin Concerto in the 1932 recording with Elgar conducting and the teenage Yehudi Menuhin as soloist, and in the Cello Concerto in the video documentary about Jacqueline Du Pré; take away the headlines and you’re confronted with a painfully interminable succession of small ideas with delusions of grandeur, furiously passionate unfoldings of melodic lines of paltry imagination. I sat through the 56 minutes of Elgar’s Second Symphony, which Mark Elder conducted to end last week’s Philharmonic program, and prayed in vain for sleep. It was a sensible, decently spirited performance — a blessed eight minutes shorter than the DG recording under Giuseppe Sinopoli — without presenting any reasonable case for the work’s persistence in the repertory. His countrymen conferred laurels upon Elgar as some kind of cultural hero, and he repaid the honor in kind, with great wads of music calculated to elicit an audience’s most elevated feelings about God, Country and the Muses. I hear nothing all that British in the Second Symphony, or in the aforementioned concertos — as I do, for example, in the hey-nonny dance music and pseudo-archaic harmonies in the symphonies of Ralph Vaughan Williams — except for orchestral textures that remind me of week-old Yorkshire pudding. To these ears Elgar represents the dying fall of the late-Romantic German manner best exemplified in the nine symphonies of Anton Bruck ner — except that Bruckner knew how to provide an audience with a little time to breathe now and then.
The tendency toward elephantiasis late in the last century also afflicted Gustav Mahler, of course; here, however, there’s a saving grace. He knew how to temper an astronomically overstuffed symphonic expostulation by bringing in a dog act along the way, or some acrobats. The Mahler Third runs 95 minutes in Salonen’s new two-disc Sony set (compared to the 104-minute slog by the usually footloose Michael Tilson Thomas on an earlier Sony release); the forces are those that performed it here last fall. It has apparently become Salonen’s signature tune: the austere intellectual, avatar of Pierre Boulez on Earth, finding a kindred spirit in this deliciously profane monster. On the home Victrola, without the conductor’s bouncing hairdo, without the seductive lurings of the offstage bugle calls and the beguilement from the look of the onstage kiddie choir (the Paulist Boy Choristers from West L.A.), the piece still scores mightily. What you might miss in the concert hall, in fact, rendered desperate by awareness of those impending 95 minutes, is the chance to relax, to greet the music on its own changeable terms, to recoil at the impact of the two outer movements — both of them wrenching and excellent — and to giggle delightedly at the dog acts in between.