Although relatively neglected in the concert-hall, the gramophone has been a constant companion to Schumann’s wonderful Symphonies for decades. Pablo Heras-Casado’s set is superb, played with care, keenness and vibrancy by the Munich Philharmonic, and beautifully recorded (March-April 2019; Philharmonie im Gasteig): you know you’re on to a good thing when you sample the opening of the ‘Spring’ Symphony and stay for the whole work – irresistible – and then hang around for the Second as well.
In case you’re wondering, given Heras-Casado is no stranger to ‘authentic’ performance and original instruments, it’s good (in my opinion) to report that these are full-strength, modern-sounding accounts that are exemplary in terms of detailing and dynamics, and with no suggestion of problems being caused by Schumann not being able to orchestrate, which is a myth anyway; throughout, Heras-Casado and his responsive musicians achieve buoyancy and clarity without any need to ‘reduce’, there’s plenty of power when needed, and violins are antiphonal, basses left-positioned. Relationships between Scherzos and Trios are Classically integrated with no need to indulge the latter while leaving no sense of them being expressively short-changed. All exposition repeats are observed.
So, ‘Spring’ is joyful and songful, although the gap between Scherzo and Finale is far too long, whereas the Second is emotional (dramatic exchanges between horns and trumpets in the first-movement recapitulation), then a spry Scherzo played with unanimous agility and a rapturous Adagio, followed by a triumphant Finale; in the coda I always listen out for a steep crescendo (here at 6:00), sometimes in vain, and Heras-Casado delivers; so does Sawallisch in his Dresden cycle. The ‘Rhenish’ is exuberant in the outer movements without rush (horns ring out in the opener), and flexible, the three middle movements picturesque (the Cathedral description solemnly uplifting); and the Fourth (revised version) is striding and serenading, potent too, attaccas perfectly judged and, as elsewhere, sure of direction and arrival; the ultimate coda is adrenalin-fuelled.
Maybe a successor release: Overture, Scherzo and Finale, some Overtures (including Manfred) and the original score of the Fourth? Meanwhile these glorious performances of the Symphonies are on Harmonia Mundi 902664.65 (2 CDs) and are the equal of the very best, such as Holliger, Kubelík, Sawallisch, Thielemann, and others.