The Schumann symphonies were always a passion of Bernstein's, and here they are, the famous set on VHS from the 80's with the Vienna Philharmonic now on DVD, with that enthusiasm intact. I'll say right off that the visual quality of the DVDs is not always the cleanest, and the image is not enhanced for wide-screen televisions. But the sound is very good, and the music and performances make up for any lapses in visuals. As a violinist, I would always cringe at the thought of performing a Schumann symphony. All of those repeated notes, all of those fortes, all of those mediocre conductors. But when I played the Third with Bernstein, I could only think of how great this music was. I am reminded of that experience with this set.
Always a stickler for the original orchestrations, Bernstein still doubles the woodwinds (four flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons) in the tuttis for better balances, tones down the fortes in the brass, and adjusts dynamics in general, while keeping Schumann's original instrumentation intact. The nuances within a given tempo completely enliven the musical discourse and involvement of the musicians. To be sure, these are extremely personal interpretations, and some might be put off by Bernstein's romantic inflexions with Schumann's symphonic offering of 'respectability'. I am not one of those.
My favorites of the set are the Fourth, Third, First, and Second symphonies, in that order. The Fourth is spectacular. It's cyclical structure is perfectly realized here, without the slightest sense of contrivance. As for highlights, the wonderful plaintive quality in the oboe and cellos (a solo cello used here) at the beginning of the second movement, after the tumultuous conclusion of the first movement; the solo violin's melismas around the main melody in the same movement, usually covered up, heard here very clearly while the rest of the orchestra is held back dynamically; Bernstein's 'Etwas zuruckhaltend' (holding back) at the end of the Scherzo stretches into a gradual slowing of tempo, wonderfully setting the tone for the awesomeness of the introduction to the final movement. The public response to the conclusion is overwhelming. The Third Symphony's first movement is marvelously heroic, with clear orchestral balances (note the brief canon between the woodwinds and first violins near the beginning, hardly ever heard in performance). The unison horns intoning the main motive right before the recapitulation is thrilling (immediately after, Bernstein accidentally knocks down the first stand of the first violins while cueing a sforzando). The second movement is enhanced by real clarity in the playing, while Bernstein plays down any heaviness in the orchestration. And again, the unison horns (with bassoons and violas) are wonderful in the coda. In Bernstein's hands, the third movement is an essay in romantic intimacy. The subtle asymmetric phrasings are brought out with great flexibility. The final ppp of the last measures are magical. Bernstein interprets The 'solemn ceremony' of the fourth movement with barely a sense of pulse. The effect is one of timelessness. The music just happens. The final movement can seem anticlimatic. Bernstein begins mezzoforte instead of forte, and gradually builds momentum. Right before the coda he broadens the tempo, when Schumann brings back the chorale from the fourth movement. It makes the fast coda that much more satisfying. The 'Spring' Symphony is full of marvelous ensemble playing (main tune of the last movement in the first violins, the woodwind playing in the two trios of the scherzo). The main body of the scherzo is taken at a slower tempo than usual, and I think Bernstein does this to coordinate exactly the tempos of the two trios with the main part of the scherzo. It works perfectly. The introduction to first movement has real drama.
The interpretation of the Second Symphony is my least favorite here. Schumann could get very obsessive with rhythmic repetition, and in the first movement, it's hard to play it down. Taking the repeat of the exposition doesn't help. But the introduction to the first movement is purposefully grave, as it introduces the motive which appears throughout the symphony (especially in the finale). The main part of the second movement is played with driving force, in contrast to the two lively trios. The violins of the Vienna Philharmonic are appropriately virtuosic. The problem lies in the third movement, where I think Bernstein falters. His rendition of this movement is far better realized on the first recording he made with New York Philharmonic. There it is better paced (slow as it is). Here the pacing is lacking, and feels even slower. It is probably the most celebrated slow movement among the symphonies, and it very well might be that this performance caught Bernstein on an off-day. But the fourth movement brings him back to form. It begins briskly, and gradually broadens near the end when the motto from the first movement introduction is re-introduced. The movement ends grandly.
I highly recommend this DVD. If you want to see high energy, involvement, and commitment on the part of an orchestra and one of its favorite conductors, this is it.