Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Schumann flies: Thomas Dausgaard Prom 51

Schumann's Symphonies don't usually pull in the crowds, but Nina Stemme does. Ironically, Schumann emerged the star of Prom 51. (follow link for rebroadcast)

Conventionally, Schumann symphonies have been marinated in the rubato-rich juices of Late Romantic lushness. Thomas Daugaard's approach is to dispense with the veneer of received performance practice, and go back to what the music might have meant to the composer himself. Earlier Romantic, then, lit by the free spirited clarity of Nature. Hearing Schumann in the context of his world is perhaps  the key to understanding his music, rather than hearing him through Wagnerian and big-orchestra filters.

Although the Swedish Chamber Orchestra Örebro (birthplace of Jussi Björling) isn't a period orchestra, there's no reason why they can't play informed by period practice.  Hence the natural horns, evoking the woods around cities in Schumann's times, and the sounds of posthorns in the towns. Tighter. lighter textures. With Dausgaard, Schumann flies, and the true adventure in his music is freed.

Schumann's Second Symphony in C major has been called problematic. As early as 1848, a critic wriote that, despite its grandeur and the elegant delineation of its sections, that there was "much that is peculair and capricious, that one will find astounding  and over which one does not know whether to question  or to be angry". Later, the image of Schumann as a madman clouded popular perception. Only now, perhaps, can we accept Schumann on his merits.

This is not, as sometimes suggested, a symphony about manic depression. The terms didn't exist in those days, and the idea of triumph certainly didn't apply to Schumann. Even at his happiest, in the year of his marriage, he's haunted by doubt, as anyone listening sensitively to Dichterliebe will know. With that myth out of the way, we can hear in this symphony deliberate references to Schumann's heroes, Bach, Mendelssohn and Beethoven.  At this point in his life, Schumann's come through a bad patch, but he's looking ahead.

The chorale theme that flows through this symphony connects explicitly to Bach and to Beethoven's 9th Symphony. Bach, of course, was "new music" in Schumann's times having been brought back into the mainstream by Mendelssohn.  It's significant, for there's a huge connection between Schumann's symphonies and his songs and chamber music. They're all part of a flow, just as in Mahler. Understanding Schumann in terms of scale and intimacy, the way Dausgaard does, makes sense.

Nowadays we can also appreciate music that it isn't smoothed out and homogenized.  Schumann 2 is odd, because he mixes serene passages with oddball quirks, like the sections in the Scherzo. The last movement is sublime, but it's undercut by the moody bassoon from the Adagio, which Schumann told a friend was when he heard his "half sickness". Yet he had a "special fondnesss"  for this strange melancholy. It's not quite as simple as feeling secure in sanity.

All his life, Schumann was fascinated by cryptic codes and portents, so secret codes do exist in his music. this symphony references Beethoven who also had a crisis of the soul, and the An die ferne Geliebter connections may refer to Clara, whose love gave Schumann respite for a while. Song again, in the guise of symphony.

I like Dausgaard's Schumann much in the way I liked Oliver Knussen Schumann Symphony no 3. Dausgaard's more elegant, but neither of them attempt to clean Schumann up or straighten him up. Schumann's interesting because he doesn't fit neatly.

Nina Stemme sings with great majesty, but Berlioz Nuits d’Été needs more vivacity. This is Berlioz nimble, agile and inspired.  The vibrant rhythmic invention of Villanelle didn't get off the ground. I tried singing along mentally, but kept getting stalled. Stemme sounded occluded, without the vigour she's capable of. In a way, though, it reaffirmed the validity of non-Wagner dynamics.

Albert Schnelzer's A Freak in Burbank was an amusing bagatelle. It's a take-off on Haydn's Toy Symphony and refers to Tim Burton's movies, which hybridize cartoon and horror. Hence the juxtaposition with Schumann, maybe. I liked the Tom and Jerry scampering, but the piece is cute rather than deep.

photo credit : Marianne Grondhal

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