Suave and elegant Schumann played in natural, heroic manner by all principals.

SCHUMANN: Cello Concerto in a, Op. 129; Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Op. 61 – Jan Vogler, cello/ Dresden Festival Orch./ Ivor Bolton – Sony 88985372122, 59:06 (12/2/16) ****:

Clara Schumann once referred to the people of Dresden as “Philistines,” convinced that, after six years’ habitation in the city, “no musician could be found.” With a prospective move to Duesseldorf, the entire Schumann family felt a renewed vigor, and Robert conceived his Cello Concerto in fifteen days of October 1850.  Curiously, despite extensive correspondence with cellist Emil Bockmuehl about the virtuosic capacities of the piece, Schumann opted for relative restraint and economic compression of the musical materials.  Still, Clara Schumann lauded the work’s Romantic fervor, its “vivacity, freshness and humor, its euphony and deep feeling.”  Schumann had already demonstrated his penchant for through-composed cyclic form, connecting each of the movements thematically, with the middle movement’s serving as a kind of intermezzo-recitative before the 6/8 finale recycles motifs heard earlier in the form of jittery dance. In the Violin Concerto in d minor, Schumann presses even further into this experiment in form, though one could argue that the thematic materials betray more fatigue.

From the initial chords of the Concerto’s opening – woodwinds, pizzicato strings, and the resonant cello (rec. 27-31 May 2016) – we become beguiled by the canny interweaving of solo and tutti textures, delicate and ardent. Vogler to my ear reminds me much of Gregor Piatagorsky, who also could coax a luxurious and seductive elan from this often recalcitrant cello masterpiece. The work exults in song, but too often Schumann staggers the arioso effect, tugging at and sometimes dismantling the components. Since the first movement lacks an orchestral exposition, the work assumes a Baroque cast; and to add to the unique structure, Schumann places what there is of a cadenza near the end of the last movement, adding orchestral punctuations, to boot! Schumann, in other words, disarms the traditional “drama” of the score in order to achieve a seamless merger of all three movements, somewhat in the manner of a lyrical rhapsody.  Vogler and conductor Bolton, however, impart a luster and acoustical resilience to their performance that should guarantee steadfast devotees of their rendition.

The Schumann Second Symphony (1845-46) began with Schumann’s assertion that “for some time now, I have had timpani and trumpets inside my head; and I do not know what may become of them.” George Szell was the first conductor to reveal to me what “became of them” in his classic Cleveland reading on CBS LP (ML 4817). Then came demonic Dimitri Mitropoulos and lavish Leonard Bernstein in quick succession; the latter complaining that Szell “always plays Schumann as if he wrote nothing but marches.” A different point of view emerged from Sinopoli, who saw the C Major Symphony as an adumbration – particularly in its slow movement in c minor – of Mahler.  The first movement once more tends to Baroque sonority, ringing in pomposo horns, trumpets, and trombones while invoking a number of contrapuntal procedures to advance the music. The oboe, woodwinds, and strings often converge in a lustrous harmonic mix based on a series of calculated pedal points, so the idea that Bruckner is nigh seems justified. Bolton enjoys the forward thrust and motion of the first movement, avoiding, I feel, the “contrived” aspect of the Thielemann recording, which tries too hard to be the one Furtwaengler never made.

The Scherzo facilely and effectively showcases the Dresden strings in a kind of moto perpetuo. We could say that Dresden has found its musicians! The ensuing staccato triplets of Trio No. 1 gambol in a light, colorful array. The second Trio, however, cannot hide its “learned” counterpoint, especially since Schumann exploits the B-A-C-H of that composer’s penchant for musical permutations on his “flowing” name. The moving bass line and tympanic beats underline the chromatic allure of the writing. Schumann will invoke more counterpoint – specifically a staccato fugue – in his Adagio espressivo, although his intent, like that in the Rhenish Symphony, seems to establish a consistent, melancholy mood, underlined by oboe, horn and bassoon. Does Bolton mean to emphasize the “Beethoven Fifth” motif even in the midst of a bucolic nostalgia? Bolton certainly does not fear the use of portamento when he wants it. The last movement exhibits aspects of heroism – C Major and c minor – much in the Beethoven tradition. What critics carp on derives from Schumann’s elaborate coda in this movement, whose proportions have a kind of Bruckner lopsidedness. The melody here derives from Schumann’s admiration for the Beethoven song-cycle To the Distant Beloved, which provided an allusion for the great C Major Fantasie, Op. 17.  Lustrous and resonant, the last pages do achieve a lovely spectrum of sound, a glorification of Schumann’s imaginative fertility in what had been a troubled period in his life; and so, the modern Dresden has in some sense redeemed its bond with this composer.

—Gary Lemco