Sunday 1 December 2013

Heinz Holliger and the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln bring much clarity and detail to Schumann, as well as joy and flair, in this first volume of the Complete Symphonic Works on Audite

It was not until 1841, after a great outpouring of songs, that Robert Schumann (1810-1856) wrote his Symphony No.1 in B flat major, op.38 ‘Spring’. This was soon followed by his Overture, Scherzo and Finale in E major, Op.52 and a second Symphony in D minor that, after its disastrous first performance, was later revised to become his Symphony No.4 in D minor, op.120.

Heinz Holliger and the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln have included the First Symphony, Overture, Scherzo and Finale and original version of the D minor Symphony on the first release in their complete Symphonic Works of Schumann series for Audite

audite 97.677

Born in Switzerland, Heinz Holliger has pursued an illustrious musical career as composer, conductor and oboist, with the Cité de la Musique in Paris, in April 2003, dedicating a whole concert week to him. In 2007 Holliger was the first to receive the Zurich Festival Award and, in 2008, he received the Rheingau Music Award. He was composer-in-residence of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and the International Music Festival in Lucerne.

Schumann’s Symphony No.1 in B flat major, op.38 ‘Spring’ was inspired by a spring poem by Leipzig born Adolph Böttger (1815-1870). He gave descriptive titles to each movement; Spring’s Awakening for the opening allegro, Evening for the Larghetto, Merry Playmates for the scherzo and Spring’s Farewell for the finale. Thankfully these titles were discarded when the symphony was published.

Heinz Holliger brings a bright yet weighty opening to Andante un poco maestoso, with the brass of the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln sounding through. I was initially worried that such a weighty opening would mean a performance that lacked clarity, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. When the Allegro molto vivace arrives there is an attractive buoyancy to the playing, taut and flexible with a remarkable amount of orchestral detail showing through. Heinz Holliger shows the orchestral subtleties than are often overlooked in less transparent performances of Schumann’s symphonies. Above all it is the tremendous facility and energy of Schumann that is brought out. Nothing turgid here, this is Schumann showing energy and flair with almost Mendelssohnian brilliance.

The WDR SO provide some lovely string sounds as the Larghetto opens, with some beautiful orchestral rubato, a nicely pointed up rhythmic underlay and some lovingly turned phrases. It is the WDR SO’s lovely rubato that adds so much to the rhythmic phrasing of the Scherzo. Molto vivace, giving such a joyful performance. The trio section is nicely phrased, a feature I’ve never really given much notice to before. The curious little coda is finely done.

Holliger allows the finale, Allegro animato e grazioso, to unfold beautifully, clearly letting all of Schumann’s orchestration lay open to hear. And how attractive it is, weighty yet so well laid out. There is some lovely woodwind playing in the central section and a terrific coda, full of joy.

Schumann’s Overture, Scherzo and Finale in E major, Op.52 quickly followed his first symphony. The opening of the Overture again shows Holliger’s way of allowing the orchestral layers to unfold so clearly and naturally, before the tempo picks up in a light and buoyant performance of this overture, at times it has an almost playful nature. The Scherzo has a terrific lightness of touch with a lovely trio section and some fine woodwind playing. There is some very fine playing from the WDR SO in the lithe finale, surely Schumann’s orchestral writing at its best. Holliger brings a surprisingly luminescent quality and some glorious sonorities towards the coda.

It really is amazing how Holliger manages to open out the textures and layers of Schumann’s orchestration that can often sound dense and weighty.

The Symphony in D minor, in its original version of 1841, also followed the first symphony as did some sketches for a C minor symphony that was never completed. The D minor symphony has no subtitle or, indeed, any kind of programme.

The majority of the revision relates to the orchestration and involves added doubling in the woodwinds, filling out of rests, changes to transitions and removing some counterpoint, possibly due to the orchestral musician’s inability to cope with the original score at the first performance. There are no such problems for the terrific WDR Sinfonieorchester.

After the slow introduction, Andante con moto, that sets out the two motifs that form the basis of this symphony, the Allegro di molto brings a transparency that is remarkable. There is a lightness and lift to the music that is most attractive with nicely crisp phrasing and a decisiveness to the dynamics. There is a fine sweep and breadth to the later bars leading straight into the Romanza. Andante which, at times, has a chamber like quality to the writing, so transparent and intricate. A lovely movement.

The Scherzo. Presto is a real presto in Holliger’s hands, crisp, lithe and decisive. The second subject has some particularly attractive string playing nicely pointed up by the woodwind. How magnificently Holliger builds the final bars leading to the final movement, Largo – Finale. Allegro vivace.  Once again this is a real allegro vivace, light on its feet, full of rhythmic, dancing themes. The brass sound out gloriously at the end.

Holliger and his orchestra bring so much clarity and detail to Schumann as well as joy and flair. These performances have made me hear Schumann with fresh ears and bodes well for future Schumann issues from this team.

Though fairly closely recorded, this new release is, nevertheless, clear and detailed. There are informative booklet notes.

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