The State of the Art
Robert Schumann: Symphonien 1–4. Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle. 2CD/1Blu-Ray. Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings, BPHR 1400110,0002949 Since the dawn of the LP era, the Berlin Philharmonic have had a strong relationship with the symphonies of Robert Schumann, recording the whole cycle under Herbert von Karajan, James Levine and Rafael Kubelík, and appearing with Wilhelm Furtwängler on a recording of the Fourth symphony which still stands as perhaps the most extraordinary performance of that work ever committed to tape. It thus makes perfect sense that the Berlin Philharmonic should wish to use these symphonies to inaugurate their new record label; however, in this remarkable new release, there is far more at stake than just the music. Instead of simply releasing yet another Schumann cycle, Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings have attempted nothing less than the establishment of a new strategy for how classical music might be marketed and sold in the age of digital technology.
Of course, the idea of an orchestra recording and releasing their own performances is nothing new. The London Symphony Orchestra have been releasing live albums under their own imprimatur for well over a decade, while the Concertgebouw and the Staatskapelle Dresden have self-released numerous commercially available CDs. None of these in-house labels, however, have mounted quite the same challenge to the orthodoxy of the recording industry as this new venture from the Berlin Philharmonic. In both the luxury of its packaging and the comprehensive nature of its content, everything about Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings seems calculated to be different … and yet, more often than not, their choices end up making a good deal of sense.
To begin with, there is the artefact itself, a long, hard-backed and cloth-bound artefact that is about as far as one can get from the jewel cases and digipacks that have dominated classical recordings for the past three decades. The box – which holds two CDs and a single Blu-Ray disc, in addition to an elegantly typeset booklet – will not sit comfortably next to the other Schumann cycles on your CD or LP shelves. Even before one has heard a note of the music, the size and disposition of the packaging seem to be announcing that this is something very different.
The discs themselves are securely stacked – without the usual plastic clasps – inside a magnetically-sealed box-within-a-box; and, intriguingly, the two CDs which contain the four symphonies, account for less than half of the total content. A third Blu-Ray disc contains all of the audio from the CDs in uncompressed stereo and 5.1 surround mixes, as well as high-definition video performances of the four symphonies from the archives of the Philharmonie’s Digital Concert Hall. As if all that weren’t quite enough, the box also contains a download code for the audio files. In terms of digital media, this is about as close as one will find to a definitive statement.
Yet everything about the packaging and presentation seems designed to downplay the value of the humble compact disc. Although reports of the death of CDs are surely exaggerated, the explosion of digital media over the past decade – along with the surprising return of vinyl LPs – have made some fundamental changes to the way that music is consumed. Classical music no longer defines and dominates the recording industry as it did for much of the twentieth century, and the challenge faced by any new label is to remain relevant within the modern marketplace while also satisfying the purists and audiophiles.
The Berlin Philharmonic’s new Schumann box offers an inclusive approach that takes into account almost all of the possible ways that people in the early twenty-first century might wish to consume their music (although see the post-script, below). For many, the compact discs will be adequate, either in a CD player or as a means of importing the music into iTunes. By the same token, the uncompressed 5.1 audio mix downloads may go ignored by the majority of the people who end up buying this set. The point, however, is that it’s all there if one wants it; and unlike purely digital music – which, even at its highest quality, seems somehow impermanent – this abundance of listening and viewing options is all stored within an elegant and tangible artefact, safe from hard-drive crashes or random solar flare activity. The set is an object of desire as much as it is a vessel for music.
As for the music itself, it is very much of the high quality one might expect. The Berlin Philharmonic have performed the Schumann symphonies in concert under Sir Simon Rattle with some frequency over the past few years – the present recordings have been assembled from a series of live performances given during 2013 – and the music is very much in their blood. That said, Sir Simon’s readings diverge quite considerably from those of his Berlin forebears; his preference for a lean sound and lively tempi have a tendency to downplay the romantic grandeur that many conductors have seen as the key to Schumann’s symphonic works.
Perhaps the greatest surprise in this set is the Fourth symphony, which offers a quietly radical departure from anything the orchestra have previously committed to tape. Part of this may be attributed to Sir Simon’s decision to use the original 1841 version of the score – Schumann would return to the piece a decade later, making minor alterations to the score and more substantial changes to the orchestration resulting in the version most frequently performed today – but the unusual sprightliness in this recording is just as must the result of the conductor’s vision.
If Furtwängler managed to locate the Brucknerian darkness in the Fourth symphony, then Sir Simon appears to be going as far as he can in the opposite direction, emphasising the lively dance rhythms and the composer’s lightness of touch. This is not to say his reading lacks weight: the second movement achieves a graceful lyricism, and there is a joyous energy in the finale which features wonderfully incisive playing from strings and a remarkable lucidity in the tuttis. While it may take some adjustment for those who are used to hearing their Schumann more self-consciously grand, this lithe, spirited Fourth is certainly a highlight of the set.
The ‘Spring’ symphony, if not quite as revelatory as the Fourth, benefits from a similar approach. After the introduction of the principal theme – a wonderful transition from the opening Andante – the opening movement proceeds with a lightness and clarity that has little concern for the stately solemnity one sometimes hears in other recordings; and in both the graceful slow movement and the animated Scherzo/Trio, one hears a welcome reminder that Schumann – for all he may be considered a romantic – still owed a considerable debt to the classical symphonic tradition of Mozart and Haydn.
The ‘Rheinische’ symphony is more of a mixed bag. The first movement especially favours textural clarity over sonic impressionism and can, at times, sound overly mannered; this is compounded by a few dynamic shifts that are not quite as finely shaded as one might like. Of Schumann’s symphonies, this is perhaps the one that benefits most from a grand approach. The slow fourth movement, however, is a marvel of excellent judgment and playing of the utmost refinement.
The Second symphony fares better than the Third, with an exciting, full-bodied finale and an absolutely gorgeous Adagio that, in the focus and sensitivity of its orchestral playing, is surely the finest moment of this cycle. While it is possible to hear the opening movement played with a greater outward show of nobility – and other conductors have located more mystery and agitation in the Scherzo – this remains a highly satisfying Second from beginning to end.
Throughout the cycle, the playing from the Berlin Philharmonic is very much in keeping with their reputation as one of the top orchestras in the world; while one could single out individual sections – the woodwinds naturally play with great agility and the strings of course possess tremendous clarity – what is most impressive is the exceptional balance of their total sound. That balance has been very well captured by the engineers at the Philharmonie in a series of not-too-close recordings that preserve the spacious acoustic of the room with little sacrifice in depth of detail. In many ways, the warmth of these live recordings is preferable to the hermetic perfection of the studio, especially as the engineers have managed to exclude almost completely any noise from the audience (which is no small technical feat, as anyone who has been to the Philharmonie during cold-season will tell you).
Ultimately this Schumann cycle is no more definitive than those of Kubelík, Szell or Sawallisch, but it is nonetheless a rewarding set of interpretations that offer intriguing and often compelling perspectives on a series of well-known works. However if the set is a success, it has as much to do with the presentation as the content: in offering their recording as a carefully-considered artefact – an artefact that bears more resemblance to the deluxe LP boxes of the mid-sixties than to anything that has been released in the era of compact disc – Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings have taken a considerable risk. With thousands upon thousands of hours of unreleased music in their archives, the Berlin Philharmonic are undoubtedly sitting on a treasure trove; what remains to be seen is whether or not they are able to turn that trove into a goldmine. Their new box of Schumann symphonies is unquestionably a promising first step.
Post Script. The only obvious thing missing from this set is the vinyl LP which, despite being usurped by the CD in the mid-eighties, is still beloved of many listeners, the present reviewer not excluded. Yet, as if to silence these criticisms, the label has already announced that a vinyl version of these Schumann symphonies will be made available later in the year, making Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings one of the few labels to have made an active return to the LP format. If the quality of mastering and pressing are anything close to the quality of the packaging – and this is far from a certainty in the twenty-first century – it will be a most welcome development indeed.