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Ronald E. Grames
Fanfare, 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.

Jeffrey Kauffman, September 2010

There’s a fine line between madness and genius which a number of artists in a variety of genres have more or less erased as they went about their creative endeavors. Several of these gifted people have actually ended up in sanitariums and other “rest homes” as a result of their mental instability, an instability which nonetheless allowed them to proffer incredible works of inspiration to the public at large. Robert Schumann was inarguably one of the greatest composers of the 19th century, and yet he is all to often remembered solely for the debilitating emotional problems which led to his institutionalization. Anyone who loves the work of Brahms can hear Schumann’s titanic influence, and quite often if you don’t know one of these composers’ less well known pieces, you could easily mistake one for the other. To mark the 200th anniversary of Schumann’s birth, Staatskapelle Dresden, an orchestra with which Schumann himself had a long and rewarding relationship (actually conducting it on occasion), delved into some of Schumann’s work from the so-called “Dresden period”, offering a compelling portrait of an immensely gifted, if emotionally turbulent, composer. This concert also holds the distinction of also including a world premiere.

The concert gets off to a lovely beginning with Schumann’s Overture to the opera ‘Genoveva’. Interestingly, and against custom, Schumann actually composed this Overture before beginning work on the actual opera. While Genoveva has been critically lambasted for its dramatic failings, the music is often prime Schumann, and the Overture itself is a model of brilliant construction and soaring melody.

Schumann went through long periods of combined writer’s block and melancholy, two sibling maladies which seemed to feed off of each other. The composer had what (to my mind at least) seems like classic symptoms of manic-depression, for when he was in one his over the top creative phases, he could perform miracles, like writing his gorgeous Spring Symphony over the course of a mere four days in 1841. Schumann also kept copious diaries, which are both fascinating and often heartbreaking, and his October 1840 musings lament his inability to get anything written, while also mentioning he has started at least scraps of a Symphony. That never finished Symphony in C Minor provides one of the “reconstructions” by Joachim Draheim on this Blu-ray, a spritely and strangely “major” sounding Scherzo in G minor, originally reduced to piano score and published as part of Schumann’s Bunte Blätter. In fact this piece, which juxtaposes shifting major and minor tonalities with ease, may well be an apt musical analog for manic-depression itself.

Also originally published in Bunte Blätter was the Abendmusik in B flat major, which in this orchestral reconstruction is given its world premiere in this concert. This almost Mozartian serenade triptych is not particularly pianistic, despite its originally publishing form, and Draheim does an admirable job in recreating Schumann’s toneworld, with beautiful brass and string work augmented by luscious wind accents.

Though it hasn’t risen to the heights of fame of some of Schumann’s other works, the impeccable choral piece Nachtlied is up next. This gently flowing, yet occasionally tumultuous, piece is a setting of a poem by Friedrich Hebbel, whose text perhaps reflects Schumann’s own emotional upheaval:

Flowing, swelling night,
full of lights and stars:
in the endless distances,
speak: what has awakened out there?

The heart in my breast is crowded
with the rise and fall of life;
I feel it weaving about me, an immense thing
that squeezes mine out.

Sleep, you approach gently
as the nurse approaches a child;
and about this paltry flame
you form a protective circle.

Schumann had a special affinity for the writing of Goethe, and his Scenes from Goethe’s ‘Faust’ is arguably one of the finest settings of the author’s literary works. Schumann was especially drawn to a rather odd novel of Goethe’s entitled Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, specifically to its supporting heroine, Mignon, an orphaned girl (from a family of tightrope walkers) who dies of a broken heart. The entire Goethe piece revolves around the conflict between a number of disparate elements, all of which Schumann found roiling around his own inner life, and so his Requiem for Mignon is an unusually autobiographical work, despite its literary genesis. Though this is a relatively small scale choral piece, it’s interesting to contrast it with Brahms’ more gargantuan German Requiem. Both pieces are both supremely emotional, while retaining a classical eye toward structure and symmetry. Schumann utilizes a solo harp here to very evocative ends.

Closing out the concert is an assured and forceful rendition of Schumann’s beloved ‘Rhenish’ Symphony. This piece, which is labeled the Third despite being in reality Schumann’s fourth, is a fascinating journey at least partially in the direction of program music. One must remember in those days, there was the nascent feud brewing, which would soon erupt in full force after Schumann’s death, between adherents of “pure” music (later championed by Schumann’s protégé, Brahms) and more descriptive, theatrical music, which would become the calling card of the more adventurously bombastic Germans like Wagner and, later, Richard Strauss. This is a piece that Schumann wrote for the masses, something he never tried to hide, and the symphony offers a seemingly endless array of folk-like tunes that are both charming and easily accessible. Harding and the Staatskapelle Dresden present the piece in both its foundational simplicity, as well as its rather nuanced eloquence, with some nicely detailed rubato and fine attention paid to dynamics.

Video Quality

Homage to Robert Schumann looks generally excellent on Blu-ray with an AVC encoded 1080i image in 1.78:1. Colors are lifelike and well saturated and detail on the many close-ups of the orchestral players is superb. What annoyed me from time to time about this video presentation was the director’s “arty” ambitions, which frequently aimed cameras squarely at stage lighting, creating explosions of white and yellow which obliterated everything in their midst. The ornate interior of the Frauenkirche Dresden look spectacular here, especially the rococo sunburst behind the orchestra.

Audio Quality

Two lossless audio mixes are offered on this Blu-ray, a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and an LPCM 2.0 stereo fold down. The Frauenkirche Dresden appears to be a larger historical house and it frankly didn’t appear to be very full for this concert, so there is a really nice hall ambience that spills through the 5.1 mix. The orchestra is beautifully placed spatially in the surrounds, and Schumann’s effortless orchestration shines through brilliantly throughout the concert. Personally I would have wished for just a bit more fire in a couple of Schumann’s more tempestuous moments, but overall Daniel Harding and the Staatskapelle Dresden offer a respectful (perhaps just a bit too respectful), intelligent interpretation of Schumann’s works, and the recording supports them every step of the way. Fidelity is top notch and dynamic range is also exceptional.

Special Features and Extras

No supplements are included on the disc. The insert booklet has in-depth information on all of the pieces included in this concert.

Overall Score and Recommendation

Robert Schumann was a deeply troubled soul who nonetheless managed to give the world some of its most beautiful music. Kudos to Staatskapelle Dresden for honoring one of their “own,” so to speak, and for introducing several lesser known Schumann pieces to the public at large. This is a varied and often very moving concert, and is recommended.

Nicholas Sheffo
Fulvue Drive-in, September 2010

...fine, well recorded performances led by conductor Daniel Harding. That it is exceptionally recorded makes it the best Blu-ray...of Schumann’s work to date.

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