One week from today SFS Media will release a new album of the complete symphonies of Robert Schumann performed by the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) under the baton of Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT). This will be a two-CD package with extensive commentary (much provided by MTT) in English, French, and German versions, along with a few attractive photographs of SFS performing in Davies Symphony Hall. As to be expected, this album is currently available for pre-order from Amazon.com.
The symphonies are presented in numerical order, Opus 38 (“Spring”) in B-flat major and Opus 61 in C major on the first disc and Opus 97 (“Rhenish”) in E-flat major and Opus 120 in D minor on the second. All recordings were taken from performances in Davies during the 2015–2016 season. (For the record, over the course of my concert-going that season, I was present at performances of all of the symphonies except for Opus 61.)
MTT’s essay is introduced by a paragraph that credits Schumann’s wife Clara with having persuaded him to move beyond writing solo piano to taking on compositions for orchestra. That introduction also describes Schumann as “a self-taught orchestrator.” It is rare that one does not encounter some form of apology for that fact that orchestral writing was never Schumann’s strong suit. As MTT’s own text observes, many notable conductors have gone to great length to “repair” Schumann’s orchestration technique. For his own part, MTT claims that he approached the problem of performing orchestral Schumann as one of varying the number of players as the occasion requires.
This is a sensible approach, but it should not be surprising. Whenever MTT conducts a symphony by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, he adjusts the number of string players on the basis of how they need to balance the wind and brass resources for that particular symphony, a technique discussed on this site only a few days ago, since MTT is far from the only conductor to engage it these days. Unfortunately, however, balancing sonorities is not the only problematic element in performing Schumann’s orchestral writing.
Often there are deeper problems in which the rhetorical stance, established by tempo and dynamic markings, can threaten the clarity of the notes themselves. Opus 61 is particularly vulnerable to this problem; but it rears its head at some time or another in each of the four symphonies. Granted, some of the more muddled passages may have been the result of poor decisions by the recording team. However, past SFS Media releases have always been consistently satisfying in recording quality; and, since I was present at performances of three of the symphonies, I can attest that problems were “in the air” even before they reached the extensive microphone array.
One possibility was that MTT felt he could make Schumann’s music more compelling by prioritizing rhetoric over clarity. There is no questioning that each of the four symphonies has its own share of moments when passions run high. However, as I prefer pianists to place clarity first when playing those large masses of notes that Schumann expects ten fingers to deliver, I feel the same way when listening to his symphonies. As a result, I tend to prefer conductors who take the liberty of slowing down the tempo when clarity is in jeopardy; and I suspect that many readers will guess the conductor I have in mind, who was notorious for playing things slowly when he knew he was being recorded!