When I suddenly bumped into the surprise re-release of this favorite former recording of all four of the Schumann symphonies, I was mightily pleased to snap it up right on the spot. First off, the sound of the famously rich-stringed Philadelphia Orchestra is captured very well in this set of recordings. Plus, don't forget the creamy woodwind playing and the burnished sounds of the brass. The combination of James Levine's youthful ardor with Schumann's heroic-lyrical drama and poetry as written into this music is simply not easily matched by the other available recordings. Yes, this is complete. One disc give us symphonies one and three, and two and four occupy the second disc.
Schumann's four symphonies have often been dismissed with faint praise, or even with outright disdain. The orchestrations are frequently faulted, accused of more than a sniff of musical awkwardness or of amateurishness. However, as original or period instrument performances led by Gardiner and by Norrington have revealed only too well in past recordings, the infamous problems of balance among strings, woodwinds, and brass in the orchestra are almost automatically solved by the naturally occurring tonal characteristics of period instruments when these symphonies are played on them.
Having said this, it is patently obvious that the Philadelphia Orchestra is NOT playing here on period or original instruments.
Yet, thanks to the innate performing genius of this renowned orchestra, as well as the leadership genius of conductor James Levine in his remarkable younger years, you forget that there was ever any question about the abilities of dear old Robert Schumann to orchestrate. Everything seems to sing right through and sing right out. Even listeners who regard the Schumann symphonies as flawed music will have to admit that the composer wrote a whole of wonderful stuff into all four symphonies. In these readings, we are destined to receive an impression of abundant musical treasure, all flooding out cleanly and clearly, without muddiness or any impression of faulty musical balances.
Beyond such clarity, the musical narrative is by turns -- vigorous, or moody -- and always moving right along in these interpretations. Tempos are varied, as they should be, but the momentum is never compromised in favor of uber-pseudo-Romantic languishing or in favor of slick virtuoso rushing, when something more forthright and more lovely will do. Solo playing from the different first chair departments of the orchestra is exquisite in tonal beauty, while always being inflected or phrased just so. Some passages swing or sway with the gentlest of melody or texture, while others stomp and shake with the sturdiest purpose. Such beauty and strength may remind us that Schumann was above all a genius of song, and of so much more via these symphonies.
The 24 bit/96 Khz remastering is quite good. If your system tends towards brightness, you may find the Philadelphia strings with a bit more steel in their glitter than you would otherwise like. Perhaps this remasting signals that these gems of the BMG catalogue (inherited/swallowed up from American RCA vaults) will eventually make it to DVD-audio or to SACD, and the altogether wonderful possibilities of a high resolution carrier.
However that may be, don't hesitate to get these performances, now. The fact that their pricing is affordable only makes finding this lost treasure that much more rewarding.
Aside from a brief first release on vinyl, these stellar interpretations (like their companions, the Levine/Chicago Brahms symphonies which also deserve your search efforts) have been absent too many years from the catalog. Even if you haven't before been able to stay the course while listening to the Schumann symphonies, you may discover that this set of performances will do the trick, though others have failed you.
If you already love Schumann's symphonies, then these fulsome big band performances will simply remind you of that attachment, rekindling the fires of the heart and mind with which this music breathes so magically.
Highly, highly recommended, then. Ten Stars.