SCHUMANN: Overture, Scherzo, and Finale, Op. 52; Manfred Overture, Op. 115; Julius Caesar Overture, Op. 128; Hermann and Dorothea Overture, Op. 136; “Zwichau” Symphony – Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie/ Frank Beermann – CPO multichannel SACD 777 719-2, 66:12 (2/25/14) [Distr. by Naxos] ***1/2:
This CD features less-well-known bits of the Schumann symphonic canon, although all of the pieces are available in rival recordings. And that may be a problem since some of those rival recordings are preferable to the current ones. However, SACD sound does give Frank Beermann and the Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie a leg up on the competition, and then there is the matter of repertoire. While most of these lesser works show up on CD with better-known Schumann, here we have a convenient way to acquire the off-the-beaten-track without duplicating the thrice-familiar.
First, the Zwichau Symphony, so named because it was premiered (the first movement, anyway) in Schumann’s hometown of Zwichau in 1833. It’s one of the works (there’s also an early Piano Quartet from 1829) through which Schumann hoped to extend his range as a composer. To an extent, he was goaded into composition by his future wife, Clara Wieck, who chided him that Wagner (two years Schumann’s junior) had “gotten ahead of him” by producing a symphony that was given its official debut in Leipzig in December 1832. Schumann’s first stab at a symphony was competent enough to get receive notices from the local critics, and even his teacher and (reluctant) future father-in-law Friedrich Wieck said it showed good craftsmanship, although he complained about the thinness of the orchestration. Schumann knew his shortcomings in this department and imaginatively appraised his writing for orchestra, “I often put in yellow instead of blue. . . .”
Well, Wagner may have beat him to the punch, but Schumann’s work is a far more mature and forward-looking work than Wagner’s. The Zwichau Symphony has a foreboding darkness and weightiness about it that speaks to a serious musical demeanor. While Schumann never got around to writing a finale, the second movement shows an innovate approach that conflates slow movement and scherzo, or at least that seems to have been Schumann’s intention. Ten years later Berwald took the same approach in his symphonies, which must have seemed a real novelty at the time.
After writing his first two completed symphonies in 1841—the First and what would be come to be known as the Fourth (which he withdrew and reworked ten years later)—in the same year Schumann penned a piece he called Symphonette. Not entirely happy, he tinkered with it further and in 1845 published what he now titled Overture, Scherzo, and Finale. The very name (earlier, he had called it Suite as well) shows that Schumann considered it a sequence of related movements rather than a unified symphonic statement. Most critics feel the Scherzo is the best bit; different from the typical athletic scherzo in the Beethoven mold, it jogs along at an amiable pace and includes a sweetly lyrical trio section, thus making a unique musical statement.
The most familiar piece on Beermann’s program is the overture to Manfred from incidental music to Lord Byron’s verse play. It has always been considered one of Schumann’s finest pieces; Beermann could have increased the novelty quotient by including one of Schumann’s less well-known overtures instead. At least we have a sympathetic performance of the unfamiliar Hermann and Dorothea, a concert overture based on a Goethe tale of the French Revolution. It’s a very attractive work that includes subtle references to the Marseillaise and, as far as I know, the only use Schumann made of a snare drum in his works. On the other hand, we also have the Julius Caesar Overture, a bombastic failure as far as I’m concerned. The piece gets the least effective performance, too—sluggish and halting, with the more portentous elements needlessly underscored.
Fortunately, the other performances on the disc are more reliable, even where there is stiff competition from other recordings. Still, there are more febrile performances of the Overture, Scherzo, and Finale on disc, including John Elliot Gardiner’s (DGG), if you hanker after original instruments. What Beermann and the Robert-Schumann-Philharmonie offer is good, solid playing in support of mostly effective interpretations, all caught in big, room-filling hi-res sound. If the repertoire appeals and if your shelves aren’t replete with out-of-the-way Schumann (as mine is), those virtues may be sufficient incentives to add this to your collection.