When great cycles of the Schumann symphonies are mentioned, I don't know why this one rarely if ever comes up. To my mind, it's vastly superior to the Szell/Cleveland cycle, if one wants to stray no further than this label, and the recorded sound is far superior, too. (I'm befuddled over the glowing reviews the Szell gets--I love Szell, but I find these generally ordinary performances in gray sound.) Here we have the Bavarian Radio Symphony, whose enthusiasm for this music is obvious. (Either that or it's their enthusiasm for Kubelik--he has produced other joyous discs with them.) They play in a very unmannered, spontaneous way that suggests that 80 musicians just happened to arrive at the same interpretive idea at the same moment. The tempi are medium, there are some tremendous dynamics, and the sound is fat and ripe without wallowing in excessive Romanticism or a thick, muddy sound. Schumann has been savaged by critics for generations for what are considered to be poorly-orchestrated symphonies, but I don't hear any evidence of it here. The color and warmth are second to none, with a truly spring-like No. 1, a No. 2 that has some of the most transparent orchestration and thrilling string writing in the repertoire (what fun the scherzo must be to play). Kudos to Kubelik for making the coda NOT sound like it's Beethoven-derived by underplaying the da-da-da-daaa march rhythm.
The Third Symphony first movement, in a rollicking 6/8, is filled with vigor and forward momentum, while at the same time the counterpoint never gets smothered as it does on some other recordings (Karajan's, for example--he seems to have some difficulty picking through Schumann's rich textures, though I like his performances a lot). More importantly, though, is his sure sense of structure in this, Schumann's longest symphony. It's hard to explain in a brief review, but some interpretors get lost in the forest here. Kubelik's sense of pacing, build and tension and release are second to none here, making this one of the great Thirds I've ever heard.
The Fourth is one of the all-time great readings of this work. While not quite on a par with the immortal Furtwangler, there are some dark moments in the development section of the first movement that are absolutely stunning, although WF competely outconducts Kubelik (and everyone else) in the finale. I found myself drawn into this powerful music like I am with few conductors.
There are many other fine Schumann cycles out there: Bernstein's last with DG (marred by mannerisms, however; what a surprise), Haitink's with the Concertgebouw (a little stodgy in places, however), Karajan's set with the BPO (though it's a bit thick in places). Sawallisch with the Dresden Staatskapelle is also very solid, though not particularly imaginative, and well-recorded. In addition, Marriner once record a superb No. 2 (now sadly out of print) and of course there's Furtwangler's immortal 4th. These recordings deserve to be up there with the best of them, and are, as I said, better than the set by Szell.