Robert Schumann
Symphony No.1 in B♭ major, op.38, “Spring Symphony”

Media Review / Comparison


2015-09-30 — Original posting
2016-08-07 — Brushed up for better readability

Introduction / The Recordings

This posting is about Robert Schumann’s Symphony No.1 in B♭ major, op.38, “Spring Symphony”, of which I currently have 5 recordings:

The discussion below follows the chronological order in the list above.

Background, About the Composition:

Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856) wrote his Symphony No.1 in B♭ major, op.38, in January/February 1841, within less than a month. Another month later (March 31st, 1841), the work premiered in the Leipzig Gewandhaus, under the direction of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Schumann called the composition “Spring Symphony” himself, reflecting on the productive outburst that made him finish it in such a short time. The symphony follows the classic scheme with four movements. Note that in the section below, the score samples have been “butchered”, i.e., only relevant voices are shown, and staves may have been compressed in order to make them more compact.

The Movements:

I. Andante un poco maestoso, 4/4 (1/4 = 66) — Allegro molto vivace, 2/4 (1/4 = 120)

515 bars total.
The first movement starts with a 24-bar introduction Andante un poco maestoso:Schumann: Symphony No.1 in B♭ major, op.38, score sample: movement #1, IntroductionThe base tempo is Andante, “a little maestoso“. To me, this implies a “walking” pace, not too slow. A 15-bar transition accelerates to the tempo of the main section (Allegro molto vivace), which uses the theme of the initial fanfare:
Schumann: Symphony No.1 in B♭ major, op.38, score sample: movement #1, Allegro molto vivace

Formally, this movement follows the classical sonata form, with a 38-bar introduction, a 95-bar exposition (repeated), a long development section of 185 bars, ending in a broad fermata (as if there was a cadenza), a recapitulation section of 64 bars, and a lengthy, 135-bar Coda, annotated Animato, adding some new material even (see the comments to the last interpretation below).

II. Larghetto, 3/8 (1/8 = 66)

123 bars total
In the slow movement, Larghetto, the metronome number in the score should serve as a guide for the tempo (it isn’t all that slow, after all!):
Schumann: Symphony No.1 in B♭ major, op.38, score sample: movement #2This is a simple Lied movement, very melodic, without repeats (as if this was a long introduction into the Scherzo). The Scherzo follows attacca, though the Larghetto ends calando, in a fermata.

III. Scherzo: molto vivace, 3/4 (3/4 = 88) — Trio I: Molto più vivace, 2/4 (1/2 = 108) — Tempo I, 3/4 — Trio II

408 bars total
In a deviation from the conventional scheme, the Scherzo has two Trios. In the first instance, the actual Scherzo is in two parts (16 + 32 bars), both parts repeated:
Schumann: Symphony No.1 in B♭ major, op.38, score sample: movement #3, Scherzo, molto vivaceThe annotation Molto vivace, along with the metronome number, indicates a lively tempo, excluding clumsiness. With the first Trio, the meter changes from 3/4 to 2/4, the tempo annotation now is Molto più vivace (much more lively), the pace changes from 3/4 = 88 to 2/4 = 108. Note that entire bars are counted. The pace of the crotchets goes down from 1/4 = 264 to 1/4 = 216:
Schumann: Symphony No.1 in B♭ major, op.38, score sample: movement #3, Scherzo, Trio I

The Trio is 184 bars, no repeats. it is followed by a (written out, 48 bars) second instance of the Scherzo, this time without repeats. The Trio II has three parts (8 + 40 + 16 bars), the first two with repeat signs, and it is in the same meter (3/4) as the Scherzo. There is no tempo annotation. However, for the final return of the Scherzo there is an annotation Tempo I, which presumably can be taken as a sign for a (gradual, not drastic) tempo alteration in that second Trio:
Schumann: Symphony No.1 in B♭ major, op.38, score sample: movement #3, Scherzo, Trio II

The final instance of the Scherzo part is reduced to 16 bars (no repeats), and it is followed by a 48-bar Coda, mostly based on material from the first Trio.  It is in three parts, the first one ending in a general rest, a slower reminiscence in the middle part, and after a fermata, a short Quasi Presto with a diminuendo, down to pp.

IV. Allegro animato e grazioso, 2/2 (1/2 = 100)

347 bars total
The last movement begins with a 6-bar fanfare:Schumann: Symphony No.1 in B♭ major, op.38, score sample: movement #4, IntroductionWhat follows is the exposition (94 bars, repeated) of a regular sonata form (second theme at bar 42):
Schumann: Symphony No.1 in B♭ major, op.38, score sample: movement #4, a tempoThe development phase (75 bars) ends in a clear fermata, a general rest, followed by a cadenza, played by the flute, first introduced by a 2-bar, accelerating horn solo. The recapitulation (95 bars) is almost exactly as long as the exposition, and again there is a clear differentiation to the 79-bar Coda, which starts with an accelerando, leading to a fulminant finale.

The Interpretations, Overview:

In order to provide a rating overview, as well as an idea about tempo relations both within an interpretation, as well as between the two recordings, I have prepared the little table below. Note that the color coding for the tempo (blue = slower, green = faster) refers to the average between the recordings, not to the metronome markings in the score:Schumann: Symphony No.1 in B♭ major, op.38: comparison, metronome and rating tableNote that the metronome values were measured near the beginning of each movement (once the tempo has settled). Some conductors further vary the tempo in due course, which is not reflected here. The ratings should be clear (1 = lowest/gray, 3 = yellow, 5 = highest/orange) — these are meant to be my personal opinion and relative, not absolute.

The Interpretations, Detail:

As mentioned above, I’m discussing the interpretations in alphabetic order (by the conductor’s last name). Note, however, that this is not the order in which I did the comparison: in the listening order, I try grouping similar recordings together, also typically listening to slower performances prior to faster ones, as I feel that this is the best way to do justice to every recording. Keep in mind that even if I make lots of critical comments to a given recording, this does not imply that I didn’t enjoy the music. I can’t deny that I’m in favor of historically informed performances: many of the older recordings definitely retain their historic value, and most of them are still interesting to listen to!


Leonard Bernstein, Vienna Philharmonics (1984)

Schumann: The Symphonies — Bernstein; CD coverSchumann: The Symphonies

Leonard Bernstein, Vienna Philharmonics

DG 453 049-2 (2 CDs, stereo); ℗ 1985/1986 / © 1986
Booklet: 20 pp. en/de/fr/it/es
Schumann: The Symphonies — Bernstein; CD, UPC-A barcode
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spacerLeonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990) recorded the four Schumann symphonies in 1985/86 with the Vienna Philharmonics. The reason why I added these CDs is that I thought of Bernstein as a genuinely romantic soul, so I felt that Schumann must be ideal for this conductor; that may all be true. But time has progressed, and current interpretations tend to be more “classic”, use less rubato and exuberant expression, etc. …

Notes on the Movements

I. Andante un poco maestoso, 4/4 — Allegro molto vivace, 2/4

Duration: 11’33”
The introduction is extremely broad, both in tempo and articulation (with the exception of the sf beats); this is most obvious at the a tempo where the triplet figures in the violas start appearing; this creates an extreme contrast (too extreme, I think) to the Allegro molto vivace section. The tempo in that part is rather fast (feels a bit pushed at times) and would call for lighter articulation in some of the accompanying voices. Also the ritardando at the end of the development phase is very extreme. On the other hand, there is definitely no danger that Bernstein’s interpretation loses momentum! The tempo at the beginning of the Coda is rather extreme (up to 1/4 = 166 and beyond), but then there’s a steep slow-down (at arco) to 1/4 = 96, if not less — too extreme?

II. Larghetto, 3/8

Duration: 7’50”
Maybe this was acceptable 40 years ago. Today, the vibrato sounds vastly overdone (especially in the violins), the tempo is far too slow, the music too sweet (even with occasional portamento!), overall. Also, there are too many strings. The horn / oboe solo at bar 78ff. is pretty much drowning in string sound.

III. Scherzo: molto vivace, 3/4 — Trio I: Molto più vivace, 2/4 — Tempo I, 3/4 — Trio II

Duration: 5’45”
The first part of the Scherzo feels rather heavy, is substantially slower than Schumann’s annotation. While in the same tempo, the beginning of the second Scherzo part turns into a harmless country dance. The first Trio is better in the tempo, but the contrast to the Scherzo is too big (this is most felt upon the return to the Scherzo). Unfortunately, for the second Trio, Bernstein takes an arbitrarily fast tempo, creating an even bigger contrast to the Scherzo; finally, the Coda starts extremely slow, at around 3/4 = 50. To me, Bernstein’s tempi are simply too extreme and too arbitrary (when compared to the score). I’m sure the tempi made sense to the conductor, but this is meant to be Schumann, after all!

IV. Allegro animato e grazioso, 2/2

Duration: 8’23”
The beginning is rather pomposo and with big orchestra sound; at the a tempo, Bernstein does a slow start and only starts accelerating. He predictably repeats this in equivalent places (e.g., bar 58). Sure, it’s enthralling and develops lots of momentum, but it is way more than animato, and never grazioso — and much, much more rubato than I can see in the score, plus lots of “grand gestures” that definitely don’t fit the grazioso! Overall, it’s a traditional, grand-orchestra interpretation with too much Bernstein in it, sometimes almost reminding me of Tchaikovsky!

Overall Duration: 33’28
Rating (see above for details): 2.8 — A very, rather overly expressive interpretation, maybe entertaining, but more Bernstein than Schumann (i.e., only loosely based on the annotations in the score)..


Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Chamber Orchestra of Europe (1995)

Schumann: Symphonies No.1 & 2 — Harnoncourt; CD coverSchumann: Symphonies No.1 & 2

Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Chamber Orchestra of Europe

Teldec 4509-98320-2 (CD, stereo); ℗ / © 1996
Booklet: 16 pp. en/de/fr
Schumann: Symphonies No.1 & 2 — Harnoncourt; CD, UPC-A barcode
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spacerNikolaus Harnoncourt (1929 – 2016) recorded the Schumann Symphonies No.1 and 2 in June 1995, with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. These are live recordings from the Stefaniensaal in Graz (presumably using recordings from multiple concerts). Orchestra arrangement: Vl.1 — Vla. — Vc. — Vl.2

Notes on the Movements

I. Andante un poco maestoso, 4/4 — Allegro molto vivace, 2/4

Duration: 11’31”
The introduction is not quite as slow as Bernstein’s, but still considerably below the composer’s annotation, too maestoso, I think (note: the annotation says un poco maestoso!), and without any Andante feeling. In addition, most staccato dots are performed portato (at least), very broad.

In the Allegro molto vivace, the articulation is very — extremely — careful, the tempo close to Schumann’s annotation (slower than anybody else). Strangely, this defeats any molto vivace feeling. Maybe we now have a different feeling of what vivid / lively is? Did people live and feel slower at Schumann’s time? As much as I’m for following a composer’s annotation — I think this is a case where the verbal annotation molto vivace prevails, meaning that the symphony ought to be performed such that it feels very lively. And for sure there are orchestras that are able to articulate with the same care and precision also at a faster pace! It’s all nicely articulated, very detailed, the sound is excellent, rich, yet transparent. Still, I don’t feel the “Spring symphony aspect“: it sometimes almost feels academic.

II. Larghetto, 3/8

Duration: 6’21”
The tempo concept is similar to Gardiner’s (or vice versa), yet, Harnoncourt manages to make the (even slightly slower) beginning sound more living, moving forward. The overall concept is more convincing, and the sound balance / richness in detail is better here. I really like the horn sound here!

III. Scherzo: molto vivace, 3/4 — Trio I: Molto più vivace, 2/4 — Tempo I, 3/4 — Trio II

Duration: 5’27”
Compared to Bernstein’s extremes, Harnoncourt’s interpretation is much more internally consistent, wich a Scherzo that is close to Schumann’s tempo (a rather grim, almost wild movement), and the Trios are different, but remain coherent with the Scherzo. Without being scholastic, Harnoncourt nicely exhibits the hemiolic part of the Scherzo theme, and I also like his view of the Trio parts, even though the articulation is sometimes a bit broad. It’s not a demonstration of virtuosity, but an empathic view on Schumann

IV. Allegro animato e grazioso, 2/2

Duration: 8’16”
Better tempo in the exposition than Gardiner and Zinman, the main theme really is grazioso. Interestingly (strangely?), the second theme is faster, and towards the end of the exposition, Harnoncourt also reaches 1/2 = 120 or more. But the coordination is good, without sounding as polished as Zinman’s Tonhalle Orchestra, and despite the historically correct orchestra arrangement with the violins at either side of the stage. I’m sure Harnoncourt has put a lot of thoughts into his tempo concept. But to me (and from the score), the result is not entirely convincing.

Overall Duration: 31’35
Rating (see above for details): 4.3 — Two very good movements (in my opinion), the last movement is OK, the first movement leaves some question marks.


Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (1997)

Schumann: The Symphonies — Gardiner; CD coverSchumann: Symphonies No.1 – 4; Symphony in G minor (“Zwickau”); Symphony No.4 (1841); Konzertstück op.86; Overture, Scherz & Finale op.52

Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique

Archiv Produktion 289 457 591-2 (3 CDs, stereo); ℗ / © 1998
Booklet: 22 pp. en/de/fr
Schumann: The Symphonies — Gardiner; CD, UPC-A barcode
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spacerSir John Eliot Gardiner (*1943) recorded the Schumann symphonies in May and October 1997, along with the early “Zwickau” Symphony (WoO 29), the Overture, Scherzo & Finale op.52, the Konzertstück in F major for four horns op.86, and the early version of the Symphony No.4. His ensemble, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique uses period instruments, the orchestra size is just about 50, considered to be what Schumann had in mind (except for the 1851 version of the fourth symphony); in this symphony, natural horns (without valves) are used. Orchestra arrangement: Vl.1 — Vla. — Vc. — Vl.2

Notes on the Movements

I. Andante un poco maestoso, 4/4 — Allegro molto vivace, 2/4

Duration: 10’54”
The introduction has the same tempo as Dausgaard’s (a little faster than Zinman’s); the maestoso aspect dominates over the andante. That’s maybe because it is almost played alla breve? Despite the small orchestra size, the recording is slightly less transparent than Zinman’s (due to somewhat broader articulation?) and Dausgaard’s — acoustics and recording technique (microphone placement) may have played a role here, too. Gardiner is sometimes pushing the tempo to the limits of the orchestra’s abilities, where the articulation / precision is just about still OK. Some (excess?) portamento in the coda.

II. Larghetto, 3/8

Duration: 6’22”
I think the beginning is a little too slow. Gardiner accelerates towards the center of the movement, where he even slightly exceeds Schumann’s metronome number (which proves that the composer’s metronome number actually works!). That part appears to have lost connection with the beginning. But good sound balance, overall.

III. Scherzo: molto vivace, 3/4 — Trio I: Molto più vivace, 2/4 — Tempo I, 3/4 — Trio II

Duration: 5’15”
Gardiner’s Scherzo is less hemiolic than Harnoncourt’s. also more harmless. The Trio is rather light, too fast? Tempo-wise, the second Trio is embedded in the Scherzo context. But overall, it’s as equally valid an interpretation as Gardiner’s.

IV. Allegro animato e grazioso, 2/2

Duration: 7’52”
The tempo is fast (faster than annotated), to the point where the music starts feeling pushed, and there are signs that the coordination starts suffering. But the ending is virtuosic, enthralling, brilliant. An attempt to produce a virtuosic showpiece? The annotation animato e grazioso tells differently!

Overall Duration: 30’22
Rating (see above for details): 4.3 — A fairly good HIP performance. Maybe still too much influenced (e.g., in the tempi) by traditional interpretations?


David Zinman, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich (2003)

Schumann: The Symphonies — Zinman; CD coverSchumann: Symphonies 1 – 4

David Zinman, Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich

Arte Nova Classics ANO 577430 (2 CDs, stereo); ℗ 2003 / © 2005
Booklet: 8 pp. English
Schumann: The Symphonies — Zinman; CD, UPC-A barcode
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spacerDavid Zinman (*1936) has directed the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich between 1995 and 2014, and in this time he has led the orchestra into a successful recording career. The Schumann’s symphonies were recorded in 2003. Orchestra arrangement: Vl 1 — Vl 2 — Vla — Vc. For more information on David Zinman and the Tonhalle Orchestra see the post “Beethoven: Symphony No.4 in B♭, op.60“. Orchestra arrangement: Vl.1 — Vl.2 — Vc. — Vla.

Notes on the Movements

I. Andante un poco maestoso, 4/4 — Allegro molto vivace, 2/4

Duration: 10’51”
When comparing this introduction with Bernstein’s or Harnoncourt’s, it is obvious that in this case, Schumann’s metronome annotation is in line with the Andante un poco maestoso (i.e., that maestoso is a secondary aspect). The sound is excellent, and so is the orchestral performance: transparent, clear, accurate (but not academic), detailed (just listen to those delayed quavers in the woodwinds, following the sforzato beats in the rest of the orchestra!

The Allegro molto vivace is faster than Schumann’s metronome annotation (but similar to Gardiner’s and Dausgaard’s), and certainly fulfills the molto vivace aspect, without feeling pushed or Presto at all. And unlike in the case of Harnoncourt, also the beginning of the second theme does not lose momentum, but maintains tension. The quality, the articulative strength, coordination, precision and transparency of the orchestra (and the recording, of course) are simply extraordinary; I don’t mean to brag about “our” local orchestra, but also the sound (strings, wind instruments) is excellent (and I say this even though I can’t claim it’s a HIP performance in terms of instrumentation!)!

II. Larghetto, 3/8

Duration: 5’57”
At the beginning of the movement, this interpretation has the most fluent tempo of the recordings in this comparison, closest to what the score asks for, certainly doesn’t fall into larmoyant romanticism, stays melodic, doesn’t complicate the music — yet, it remains Larghetto. But also here, the music picks up pace towards the climax in the center, reaching Schumann’s tempo annotation. This is amazingly vivid, compared to Bernstein’s interpretation. Excellent transparency, excellent wind instrument sound!

III. Scherzo: molto vivace, 3/4 — Trio I: Molto più vivace, 2/4 — Tempo I, 3/4 — Trio II

Duration: 5’02”
A tad faster than Gerdiner’s interpretation everywhere, with slimmer articulation, a little smoother, maybe more polished, more virtuosic, excellent in coordination, playing and sound, though with mostly modern instruments. Fits the molto vivace and Molto più vivace annotations (ignoring the metronome numbers in the Trio I part, though) — but still, the tempo is at the upper limit, for sure.

IV. Allegro animato e grazioso, 2/2

Duration: 7’43”
Zinman starts with the same, fast tempo as Gardiner — but he even accelerates in the course of the exposition. The coordination is excellent. The fact that the two violins sit next to each other is helping, of course, but this defeats the many echo effects in the movement. Even here, the tempo is at the limit of what the orchestra can manage (thanks to the virtuosity of the orchestra, the tempo rarely feels pushed). Excellent, near-perfect playing, but not really grazioso, and often a bit too polished, too much showing off, I think. Excellent sound balance (unlike with Gardiner, the trombones don’t dominate in the last part).

Overall Duration: 29’31
Rating (see above for details): 4.8 — Excellent interpretation (certainly one of the best on modern instruments) — except maybe for the last movement, which to me has a bit too much of a showpiece.


Thomas Dausgaard, Swedish Chamber Orchestra Örebro (2007)

Schumann: Symphony No.1, Overtures — Dausgaard; CD coverSchumann: Symphony No.1, Overtures

Thomas Dausgaard, Swedish Chamber Orchestra Örebro

BIS-SACD 1569 (iTunes download, 256 kbps, stereo); ℗ / © 2007
Booklet: none with download
Schumann: Symphony No.1, Overtures — Dausgaard; CD, EAN-13 barcode
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spacerThomas Dausgaard (*1963) published his recording of Schumann’s Symphony No.1 in 2007, along with the first movement of the early “Zwickauer Symphonie” (which remains a fragment), two Overtures (“Genoveva” and “Die Braut von Messina”), and the “Overture, Scherzo and Finale” op.52. For more information on Thomas Dausgaard and the Swedish Chamber Orchestra Örebro see the post “Beethoven: Symphony No.4 in B♭, op.60“.

Notes on the Movements

I. Andante un poco maestoso, 4/4 — Allegro molto vivace, 2/4

Duration: 10’53”
Compared to Zinman & the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, transparency is achieved through a small(er) orchestra, the sound is more “earthly” / natural (more realistic, more HIP?): I like the (apparent) stronger presence of the woodwinds in the overall sound. This is not a matter of sound management by the recording team, but a consequence of the smaller string body, which renders the recording more colorful. The tempo in the introduction is among the fastest, focusing on the Andante aspect, limiting the maestoso to the first 6 bars.

Also the Allegro part is excellent. One may debate about some articulation details, e.g.: punctuated quavers being executed very short, as if they were notated staccato — but at least, this is obviously Dausgaard‘s conscious decision. I like the differentiation among the strings, and particularly the sound of the violas in bars 88 – 102. Excellent also in maintaining momentum and tension throughout the movement. Excellent, overall, and anything but “cold virtuosity”!

When listening to bars 438 – 466 in this interpretation (preceding the final stringendo), I was strongly reminded of similar (melodic / harmonic) passages from Schumann’s Lied “Widmung” from “Myrthen”, op.25 — is this just me? Why did I realize that specifically with this interpretation? A very touching moment to me: this Lied was Robert Schumann’s wedding gift to his beloved Clara. Therefore, this is clearly not a mere coincidence!

II. Larghetto, 3/8

Duration: 6’10”
Tempo-wise, this recording follows the general pattern (picking up tempo towards the climax). What I particularly like about this recording is the virtual absence of vibrato. The movement remains intense, touching, expressive: the clear proof that vibrato is not needed for being expressive! To me, this recording beats the others in the oboe / horn solo (bars 78ff.), in the sound balance in general, and in the wind instrument sound in particular (not nearly as polished as with Zinman).

III. Scherzo: molto vivace, 3/4 — Trio I: Molto più vivace, 2/4 — Tempo I, 3/4 — Trio II

Duration: 5’42”
Scherzo: excellent tempo, natural rhythmic feel. The second Scherzo-part (after the repeat sign) is a horn feast — excellent, but not exaggerated! The other wind instruments are equally marvelously contributing to the rich sound experience! In the Trio parts, this interpretation is closest to Schumann’s metronome marks, the Scherzo is a tad below Schumann’s tempo — slower than the others (excepting Bernstein, of course), but never feeling slow, really. An outstanding recording, in my opinion!

IV. Allegro animato e grazioso, 2/2

Duration: 8’38”
My first reaction was: excellent tempo, congrats! But then, I checked, and it is exactly Schumann’s metronome annotation. So, not a virtuosic showpiece (though excellently played), but truly Allegro animato e grazioso: presumably what Schumann intended: not rushed / pushed. The final stretta is excellent, virtuosic, yet always retains transparency, a warm string sound (never polished), and excellent brass sound, adding color, but not excessively dominating.

Overall Duration: 31’38
Rating (see above for details): 5.0 — Excellent, one of my clear favorites — and more HIP than Gardiner!


Addendum:

I use a Philharmonia / Universal pocket score (Philharmonia No.31) to follow this music while listening. This particular score is not available from Amazon, but the Hawkes pocket score should do just as well: —Find pocket score on amazon.com—



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4 thoughts on “Schumann: Symphony No.1 in B♭ major, op.38”

  1. Interesting review – I have the Dausgaard and Zinman, but also like Sawallisch’s famous Dresden recording on EMI. I haven’t listened to Dausgaard’s recording for a while, I will do so soon.

    One correction: in the interpretation table you have Bernstein’s orchestra as the NYPO not the VPO.

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