Classical Album Review: Daniel Barenboim conducts Schumann

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Even if this isn’t the most interpretively satisfying of Daniel Barenboim’s traversals through this repertoire, it is a deeply revealing one that draws on a lifetime of experience with this music.

This latest release of Daniel Barenboim’s – his third traversal through Robert Schumann’s four symphonies – was, no doubt, intended as a celebratory effort, honoring the conductor’s 80th birthday last November. Yet Barenboim’s health issues last year inevitably hover over the whole effort and, sadly, it’s probably safe to read the cycle more as a valedictory statement than not.

The interpretations themselves, played by the Staatskapelle Berlin, sometimes seem to look back towards the subjective rhetorical style of Barenboim’s childhood mentor, Wilhelm Furtwängler. In fact, a good bit of the present cycle – much of the First Symphony, parts of Three and Four – is decidedly flexible in its phrasing, even more so than in the conductor’s previous Schumann set with this orchestra (from 2003 on Teldec).

At its best, his approach results in playing of force and motion, if maybe not always the most impellent variety. That’s the situation with the Third Symphony. Here, the outer movements are well-directed if, at times, a bit stately. But the middle three are the picture of color, spirit, and dramatic rightness.

The latter qualities also define the Staatskapelle’s masterful performance of the Second Symphony. In it, Barenboim leans into the principle that all music is, essentially, a dance. Accordingly, the outer movements unfold with vigor while the central pair – an exuberant Scherzo with graceful, Brahmsian trios (including some subtle inner-voice portamentos) and a gorgeously sung Adagio – provide a perfect counterweight.

Alas, neither the First nor Fourth Symphonies live up to that high bar.

The “Spring” Symphony’s middle movements brim with character but the outer ones are handled fussily. Momentum almost comes to a stop at a couple of key lyrical junctures in the first while the last feels consistently restrained until the coda – which wraps up the performance at the tempo the body of the movement should have been at all along.

Similar issues dog the first movement of the Fourth, though its latter three are generally goal-oriented and resonant.

What every performance here boasts, though, is an astonishing degree of textural lucidity. The old bias against Schumann as a terrible orchestrator has been increasingly debunked; Barenboim’s grasp of the music ought to put it to pasture once and for all.

To be sure, he gets it to speak on every level. The melodic line is consistently front-and-center. The music’s shifts of color (the “Rhenish” Symphony’s burnished chorales, for instance, and the dusky transition into the Fourth’s finale) are grippingly done. Throughout, all sorts of little details – rhythmic dissonances in the First’s Larghetto, woodwind dovetailing at the end of the Second’s slow movement, and the horn/low woodwind writing in the Third’s Scherzo, among them – emerge effortlessly.

So, even if this isn’t the most interpretively satisfying of Barenboim’s traversals through this repertoire, it is a deeply revealing one that draws on a lifetime of experience with this music. DG’s engineering ensures that it is all beautifully balanced and natural sounding.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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