Schumann Speaks To Today's Conductors

February 24, 1991|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

An article about Robert Schumann in yesterday's Arts and Entertainment section gave an incorrect cause of death for the 19th-century composer. Schumann attempted but did not succeed in committing suicide.

"No orchestra ever earned its reputation by its interpretation of Schumann," Donald Francis Tovey wrote more than 50 years ago.

Tovey was a deservedly famous music critic, but he was a poor prophet. In recent years the Schumann symphonies, which once occupied the fringe of the standard repertory and were regarded as the poor cousins of the looked-down-upon Mendelssohn symphonies, have attracted the attention of most of today's influential conductors -- and the record companies with whom they are affiliated.

Leonard Bernstein, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Sergiu Comissiona and David Zinman are just a few of the conductors who have completed recent recorded cycles of the four Schumann symphonies. Cycles currently in progress include those by James Levine (his second), Kurt Masur, Riccardo Chailly and Roger Norrington. And this does not include reissues of older sets by the likes of Herbert von Karajan, Georg Solti, and George Szell. Compare this cornucopia to the situation barely 20 years ago when there were only two complete recorded cycles in the Schwann record catalog.


"The Schumann symphonies will never become blockbuster material, but they are more popular now than they have ever been," says Peter Munves, the director of marketing and planning for Sony Classics.

The symphonies have a troubled past. Although Schumann (1810- 1856) was always ranked among history's greatest composers -- mostly for his piano works and his songs -- he was regarded as a poor, perhaps inept, orchestrator who could not work in larger forms. The symphonies also had a bad reputation because of the circumstances in which they were written: In his later years, the composer suffered ever more frequently from severe depression -- he eventually committed suicide -- and the symphonies were believed to show the debilitating effects of his illness.

A study of the orchestral repertory of America's orchestras from 1914 to 1972 shows a steady decline in the number of Schumann performances. When the music was performed, it was often in heavily retouched versions that were sometimes -- as in the case of Gustav Mahler's once widely used orchestrations -- wholesale reconstructions.

That this situation has changed, say musicians and record company executives, is a consequence of a generation of

conductors who love Schumann; of the Mahler boom, which has changed the way we listen to symphonic music; and of something in Schumann that seems to speak to our own nervous, obsessive age.

"We all reassess our catalogs to see what we need," says Lisa Altman of London Records' marketing department. "But the real reason for the sudden glut of Schumann is that our conductors are coming to us and saying 'It would be fantastic if I could record this.' "

"My generation of conductors is determined to prove how great Schumann is," says Chailly, the music director of Amsterdam's Concertgebouw Orchestra, adding that the technical challenge of this music is one of the reasons the symphonies now attract conductors.

"It is like what they say about Mount Everest -- 'because it is there,' " the Italian conductor says. "The first movement of the 'Rhenish' Symphony may be the most difficult thing in the repertory -- even harder than anything by Bruckner or Mahler. So much happens -- so many avalanches of 16th notes -- all together at the highest level of sound. It can easily become loud and messy, and it usually does. For a conductor, a successful performance of Schumann is like breaking through a door that has never been opened before."

Chailly and others say the case for the Schumann symphonies has been made more persuasive by the Mahler boom of the last 30 years. Prior to the popularity of Mahler, listeners' expectations were formed by such symphonies as those of Beethoven or Brahms -- musical works with a clearly organized narrative shape. "I call them goal-directed symphonies," Chailly says. "Once you get to the last movement of a Beethoven or Brahms, you say toyourself, 'This is where I have been headed all along.' Schumann's symphonies -- like Mahler's -- ask you to pay more attention to individual details and textures and to be more tolerant of detours and strangeness."

Although Mahler was the worst offender when it came to reorchestrating Schumann's music -- the most infamous of the indignities he forced upon the composer was ruining the "Manfred" Overture's moody opening with a cymbal clash -- he loved Schumann and conducted his work often, preferring it to that of Brahms.

"That Mahler rewrote the symphonies only proves how much Schumann meant to him and how much he learned from him," says Houston Symphony music director Christoph Eschenbach, who has just completed a Schumann cycle scheduled for release this fall on the Virgin label.

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