SACD: Schumann Sym 3 & 4: Lawrence Foster, CzechPO: A Luxury
Dan Fee | Berkeley, CA USA | 04/17/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This second super audio disc completes a full Schumann symphonies cycle by conductor Lawrence Foster and the redoubtable Czech Philharmonic in Prague. I had strong praise for the first disc that contained the first and second symphonies. How does this one fare?
Let's start with super audio surround sound. Like the earlier disc, the engineers and producers at Pentatone-Polyhymnia have again done themselves proud. Working in the tricky venue of the Dvorák Hall of the Prague Rudolfinum, they have given us surround sound (or SACD stereo, or regular CD stereo) that is full, rich, warmly resonant, and yet detailed. So far this disc is probably about the closest reproduction we can get, to having the Czechs really playing in our listening rooms at home. Your multiple channels system will affect how all this plays out, of course; but most people bothering with surround sound super audio will have a good enough system to take the heat, and then some.
The Czechs are one of the world's great bands; this disc shows it.
Led by Lawrence Foster, the reading is a touch old-fashioned, big boned, big band in style. The band departments get to show off within this familiar, effective musical frame. Strings are lean and disciplined. Shimmering overtones of silver light up the violins. (Was everybody a student of Henryk Szeryng?) Those famed Czech woodwinds do not disappoint. Playing is lively and eloquent. The brass know how to be fastidious and discreet; rising to proper moments of burr and bite and burnish.
Foster works inside tempos that are completely non-eccentric, mainstream. Slow or fast or medium, he and the band keeps things flowing right along. Phrasing is the key to the genius of this reading, so far as my ears hear it. Everybody gets very high marks for pert launching and pointed shaping of their music. Solo and ensemble work carries us delightfully along open air, outdoor pathways. (The first symphony is subtitled, Spring, and the third is called, Rhenish, for goodness sake.) No musician has any need for overly modernized self-consciousness or that ironic distance we are all sometimes accustomed to take towards the High Romantics of the nineteenth century. Even less does anyone need to be all macked out in full-fledged HIP street-savvy regalia, so far as performance styles go.
One very nice touch that permeates all four symphonies in these two discs is that - maybe thanks to high resolution audio engineering at the recording sessions? - the instrumental doubling that Schumann wrote down so often do not come across clumsy or thick; but instead, here offer extra vivid colors touches and tonal shadings. (If you want to steep in that, just listen on good headphones.)
Some listeners may have reservations? The open-air countryside may not do for all, across all of the four symphonies. Those distinctive solemnities in the fourth movement of the Rhenish, for example, may strike some ears as not dark enough, not fearfully awed enough, not trembling before deity. In this reading, a Mysterium Tremendum is pretty much all Green Nature, thriving contemplative in abundant love of life. If all the open air does not bother you, then you can just sit back and revel in what these readings do offer: a wholesome, saturated beauty. (Some may fault these interpretations, for not revealing more of the well-known Schumann manic-depressive or self-doubting and neurotic features of the High Romantic Message.)
Happy as we are to welcome these discs to the keeper shelf - the choice lists for these symphonies are long and distinguished.
Current red book CD notable include: (1) Sawallisch in Dresden; (2) Zinman in Zurich (and Baltimore); (3) Levine in Philadelphia (my own special treasure hunt that finally paid off; and do not forget Levine in Berlin); (4) Haitink in Amsterdam; Jerzy Semkow in St. Louise - USA; (5) Kubelik in Bavaria; (6) Klemperer in London with a golden age Philharmonia on EMI. Well add your own preferences.
Vienna has seen several strong readings of all four symphonies, led by (no particular preference order, variously): Muti, Solti, Mehta, Bernstein.
As if that were not enough, super audio surround offers up two strong competitors. Szell in Cleveland has been remastered in SACD stereo from the original vault tapes; a release not much of a surprise in itself, as the more I hear those old Szell discs, the greater I think they are. Some may wince at Szell not being able to refrain from touching up Schumann's original orchestrations. (Worth listening to the Gustav Mahler orchestrations, too, either under Chailly in Leipzig or Ceccato in Bergen.) Newer is the really complete set that involves Thomas Dausgaard leading the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. He gives us both the original and the revised editions of the fourth symphony. The super audio surround sound is splendid across all channels; the chamber orchestra bit means that the ensemble magic just keeps on giving and giving and giving.
What more? If you are dyed-in-the-wool HIP, you can take a look at Norrington, Gardiner, or Herreweghe. My own HIP favs are the Herreweghe discs. All light, all warm, all lovely. If you want a sleeper, completely individual take on Schumann's orchestral music (some would call these punchy readings, eccentric?), search out the Florian Merz complete set with his specialist-occasionalist band, Classical Philharmonie in Dusseldorf, on EBS.
Both Foster plus Czech super audio discs belong in the top tiers, for surround sound audio quality and for performance value. The many strong choices are a tribute to the composer, above all. We have moved - from a time when critics and informed classical music audiences routinely damned the Schumann symphonies with faint praise (esteeming his lieder or his piano music much more highly), to a time when we can hear the symphonies played on recordings as well as in our local concert halls. We are much the better off for this new and surprising popularity of these four symphonies; and thank goodness for that. Five stars, Pentatone-Polyhymnia. Five stars, Czech Philharmonic. Five stars, for conductor Foster. Yes, I liked Szell. Yes, I really liked Dausgaard. Yes, I like this set, too."
Brings Back Beautiful Memories
Barb Nicolson | Santa Ana, California | 06/16/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)
"While in Prague in April of 2008, I was fortunate to be in the audience when this concert was recorded. The Czech audience is much more sophisticated than the American audience. There was absolutely no coughing, talking, or cell phones going off during the performance.
This recording demonstrates an immense focus on perfection. It is clean, balanced, and sounds just as it did in person.