ROBERT SCHUMANN: Symphony No. 1 “Spring”; Symphony No. 2 in C; Symphony No. 3 “Rhenish”; Symphony No. 4 + video extras – Berlin Philharmonic/ Sir Simon Rattle – Berlin Philharmonic Recordings (Blu-ray video & Pure Audio + CDs)

by | Jun 1, 2014 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews

ROBERT SCHUMANN: Symphony No. 1 in B flat Major, Op. 38 “Spring” (31:07); Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Op. 61 (38:04); Symphony No. 3 in E flat Major, Op. 97 “Rhenish” (30:38); Symphony No. 4 in d minor (1841 version) (24:57) + video extras (10:00) – Berlin Philharmonic/ Sir Simon Rattle – Berlin Philharmonic Recordings Video Blu-ray, Pure Audio Blu-ray + 2 standard CDs BPHR140011 *****:

This is a quite amazing release, and the first release from the new Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings, which is following on the example of many other of the world’s major symphony orchestras (such as the London Symphony, SF Symphony and Bavarian Radio Symphony), but carrying it even further. The Philharmonic’s new label is designed to provide the highest technical and editorial standards and to convey their music from diverse perspectives. Thru hi-res audio and video material, they want to create top quality products that are beautifully designed as well as a joy to listen to or view. The conductor/label relationships which the Philharmonic had for so many years, first with Herbert von Karajan and DGG and then Sir Simon Rattle and EMI Classics. Almost no conductor has a long-term contract with a major label anymore. So orchestras have to do the whole thing on their own, and many of them have.

The Berlin Philharmonic has been telecasting their concerts on the Internet in HD video since 2008 via their Digital Concert Hall. They provide both hi-def live and recorded concerts as well as hi-res audio streaming downloads. The idea is for people worldwide to have the opportunity thru all media formats to experience their concerts. This effort will surely increase the already elevated global reputation of the Berlin Philharmonic. Now comes this first release of their new record label, which comes in a hard-bound 9 1/2” by 6” package, and consists of three discs: one with Symphonies 1 & 4 and one with Symphonies 2 & 3 on standard CDs (56:18 & 68:56), plus a third Blu-ray disc with all four Symphonies in both HD video and hi-res audio. The videos allow a choice of either 5.0 DTS-HD Master Audio (16-bit/48K) or 2.0 PCM, and the audio-only sources (which are shorter due to no applause at the end, etc.) on the Blu-rays allow a choice of either 5.0 24-bit/96K audio or 2.0 PCM Stereo. A 50-page linen-bound book in German and English is the main thrust of the package. There is also provided a personal code to download hi-res audio files of the Symphonies, plus another code for a 7-day ticket for the Digital Concert Hall.  The three extras include a fine ten-minute discussion by Rattle on Schumann and the Symphonies. I don’t believe I have ever heard such a concise explanation of the composer’s mental illness and how it affected his symphonies and relationships. There are also a “Behind the Scenes” video and a short explanation of the Digital Concerto Hall.   I have never before seen a complete video screen such as appears when you put the Blu-ray disc in. It shows all the options for either video and audio and the various formats in which the audio may be furnished. There is also more audio available for download as “Mastered for iTunes” from the original 24-bit masters.

The HD videos are shot with five video cameras (set up by Sony), of which four appear to be mostly static and a fifth with a full view of the entire concert stage and surroundings at wide angle, and able to zoom down to just Rattle at the podium and some surrounding musicians.The shots and cutting are excellent, and it didn’t require cameras all on one side one day, and the other side the next and so on, the way Karajan shot his videos.

The Schumann Symphonies have been performed very frequently by the Berlin players and there are complete sets on CD with this orchestra by Karajan, Levine, Jochum, and Kubelik. They feel like these works are a part of their core repertory. Rattle presents the Symphonies in a new light, with a smaller, lighter string section than most other recordings. The First Symphony was part of a joyous burst of activity for the newly-married 30-year-old composer. Schumann originally had corny titles for each movement, inspired by the impact of a poem by Böttger—whose lines about spring approaching inspired the symphony—namely: “The Beginning of Spring,” “Evening,” “Merry Playmates,” and “Spring in Full Bloom.”

The Fourth Symphony (which Rattle explains was actually the second composed) was a work which Clara Schumann described as “created out of the deepest soul.” This is the original Schumann 1841 version, which Rattle has conducted since 1988, also the later revision with a full and richer sound is the one published and usually performed. Rattle feels “…it is for me a desperately unsettling mirror into his psyche.”

The Second Symphony, of 1845/46, is felt by Rattle to be the most symphonic-sounding of the four.  It comes from a period when the composer was in a great depression. “It is music of light and shade, sunshine and shadow.”  The influence of Mendelssohn—his teacher seen so much in many of Schumann’s works—come thru really strong in its rhythmical Scherzo movement. The Third, “Rhenish” Symphony is in five movements, and Schumann himself said it was far more friendly in mood than the Second. He had an “inner program” of river cruises, festivals and cathedrals. Rattle sees in the work (and especially the final movement) “…a glimpse into unfathomable depths of a soul and into the heart of a man planning to put a violent end to his life by throwing himself in the Rhine…”  Composed in 1850, the Berlin Philharmonic first performed the symphony in 1884. There was room—even on the CDs—for some Schumann Overtures filler, but no matter. In general this is a production of great integrity and precision and will probably be a benchmark for Schumann Symphonies recordings for many years.

—John Sunier