Ronald E. Grames
, May 2011
SCHUMANN, R.: Genoveva Overture / Requiem fur Mignon / Symphony No. 3 (Homage to Robert Schumann) (Dresden Staatskapelle, Harding) (NTSC) 101523
SCHUMANN, R.: Genoveva Overture / Requiem fur Mignon / Symphony No. 3 (Homage to Robert Schumann) (Dresden Staatskapelle, Harding) (Blu-ray, Full-HD) 101524
The program itself is an interesting one, with repertoire both familiar and refreshingly unfamiliar, and first-rate conducting and performances. Daniel Harding, still young at 34 when this recording was made, has been before the public as a conductor for half of that. He is a relatively familiar figure in Dresden judging from his online schedule, and has made Schumann something of a specialty of late. He certainly has the measure of the music, finding the happy mean between the dramatic and lyrical impulses of this most romantic of composers. In this he is helped, of course, by the marvelous Dresden Staatskapelle, which seems to breathe this music of the once native son. This concert celebrates the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth and especially the happy and highly productive six years in Dresden (1844–50) during which he wrote most of the works presented here.
Oddly, the one exception is the symphony, which occupies the second half of the concert. The Third—actually the last, as readers may know, since the Fourth is really the second composed—was written in Dusseldorf after Schumann had left Dresden to take a conducting post. No matter; the so-called “Rhenish” is a marvelous work. Harding conducts with a light hand, often emphasizing the rhythmic elements under the singing melodic lines to maintain forward momentum. Even the extraordinary Feierlich movement, while sustained, mysterious, and very powerful, is not allowed to get at all heavy, and it builds most movingly to that glorious B♭-Major fanfare. The other four movements are similarly well shaped, elegant, and always alert. Only the second movement, Sehr Mäßig, is a little breathless in its attempt to make a true scherzo out of what is a ländler. The buoyant and perfectly paced Nicht schnell more than compensates, as does the way that Harding breaks the spell of the fourth movement with the joyous celebration of the fifth.
The other performances are similarly impressive. The overture to Genoveva, Schumann’s solitary opera, is the most familiar part of the composer’s oft-maligned essay on innocence assailed. It is a spritely performance, with the winds and glorious Dresden horns given characterful prominence. It is the only thing from the first half that will be familiar to most. Two orchestrations by Schumann scholar Joachim Draheim of pieces from Schumann’s Bunte Blätter, op. 99, are premiered: the Scherzo in G Minor, originally from the Symphonic Fragment in C Minor, and the Abendmusik in B♭. There is good precedent for the orchestration of the Scherzo—more a reconstruction, as Draheim’s essay points out—as Schumann left a reduced score with many notes on instrumentation. There is no such source for the Abendmusik, so its transcription is more conjectural, and Draheim transposes the central section from G♭ to G “for performance reasons,” which either reduces harmonic interest or creates greater cohesion, according to one’s perspective. Both works are pleasant enough in this guise, and Draheim’s orchestrations sound like Schumann from this period, but they are hardly memorable and some of the wind writing is clumsy. They are better as the composer intended them: piano works.
The other two pieces are relative rarities from Schumann’s Dresden residency that definitely do deserve greater exposure. Harding’s is one of only two recordings of the Nachtlied, op. 108 (a third on Opus 111 is out of print), and the only one with video. It is hard to understand the piece’s obscurity, as it is an exquisite setting of Friedrich Hebbel’s lyric verse, the chorus rising out of the dark opening to create a thrilling climax before the music, like the text, retreats into the closing peace of night. The performance is even finer than Gardiner’s dramatic performance on Deutsche Grammophon. The 60-voice MDR Radio Chorus of Leipzig is particularly warm and expressive, maintaining a remarkable poise at Harding’s significantly slower tempo: 11:41 vs. Gardiner’s 9:00. The sustained ending is quite breathtaking.
Requiem für Mignon from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, op. 98b, is somewhat better represented in the catalog, with performances by Abbado (DG) and Klee (EMI) outstanding. Harding’s traversal, generally slower but dramatically sustained, is nearly as fine as these, and preferable to Gardiner’s (with the Nachtlied). It shares one difficulty with the English conductor’s performance: the use of boy soloists. Schumann called for adult female singers to portray the acolytes in the funeral for the deceased young orphan. Impressively as these four boys from the Dresden Kreuzchor sing, they don’t convey the yearning of Goethe’s text as effectively as the women do in the other recordings cited. Baritone soloist Markus Butter has a rich, compact voice and projects his small bit of text genially, though without Fischer Dieskau’s (Klee) distinctiveness. And I wish the important harp part came through more clearly.
The indistinct harp and the generally slower tempos can most likely be blamed on the acoustic of the Frauenkirche, which has a decay time of about five seconds. The MDR engineers have tamed this for the most part with close miking; the microphones can be seen next to the players’ stands and close overhead. The small chorus is made to sound larger by the lively acoustic, but again multi-miking has minimized this. I suspect, though, that even those fluent in German would have trouble discerning many of the words. The problems with reverberation become greater after the chorus departs, so that there is a perceptible loss of clarity during the symphony. Sound quality in stereo mode differs little between the high-resolution disc and the DVD. The Blu-ray 5.1 track does create a more distinct aural image than that of the DVD, and the picture is certainly sharper in the former. Last niggle: One can hear what sounds like occasional off-mike singing during the program. I suspect that it is Harding, and it sounds like the engineers tried to remove it, but it is sometimes audible when listening through speakers and more often through headphones. Still, all complaints about boys, harp, video, and audio aside—and the reader can decide how important they are—I want to make it clear that I like these performances. Those seeking a video of these works can count this as a recommendation.