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Schumann Symphonies Review

Album. Released 2004.  

BBC Review

Zinman and his Zurich players work hard to keep all the detail and transparency by...

Andrew McGregor 2004

Their budget-priced set of Beethoven Symphonies has proved an outstanding success, and their Missa Solemnis was a critical hit. Their Richard Strauss series has been well received, all seven CDs of it, so what exactly is the winning formula for the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, and will it work with Schumann's Symphonies?

The hallmarks so far seem to be brisk tempi, and a lithe, lean muscularity that brings a crisp excitement to sound. Zinman and his Zurich players work hard to keep all the detail and transparency by using what feels almost like a period instrument approach: spare vibrato from the strings, real period brass instruments and hand-stopped horns, plus the tight, dry timpani sound you get from hard sticks. So immediately this team is ideally suited to squashing that most common criticism of Schumann's orchestration: that it's poorly realised, badly written, muddy, even boring. 'Nonsense!' Zinman seems to be saying, and sure enough there's no need to reinforce the winds to hear them clear as crystal through the sensibly-sized string sections.

Not everyone takes Schumann's metronome marks literally either. Zinman does, and one of the benefits is a 'Rhenish' Symphony that's propelled with a vigour missing from many larger-scale readings; and while some listeners might miss the monumental grandeur familiar from some famous recordings, there's little doubt that this is considerably closer to Schumann's vision of the piece.

The rasp of the horns and rattling timps are a major feature of the 'Spring' Symphony, and combined with the smaller forces and swifter speeds, Zinman's reading reminds you more of Schumann's classical predecessors than his romantic successors. When, as here, you're made more strongly aware of where he's come from than where he's heading, Schumann's symphonies seem to grow in stature; no longer Brahms-lite or second-best-Bruckner, this is post-Beethovenian writing of quality and depth.

In summary, they've done it again...and so has Arte Nova's recording team, expertly managing that difficult balance between detail and warmth.

Then there's the price. The Schumann Symphonies in classy new recordings like these for under £10 is a steal, and if Zinman and Co. don't make Schumann a whole load of new friends with their efforts, then there's no justice.

Like This? Try These:
Haydn: Symphonies 6-8 (Freiburg Baroque Orchestra)
Bruckner: Symphony no. 8 (Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra)
Mahler: Symphony no. 4 - chamber version (Smithsonian Players)

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