Robert Schumann used to get a bad rap. Critics faulted his orchestrations on the basis of balance and tended to dismiss his symphonies. In time, the "period instrument" movement revealed that Schumann's writing was just fine for the orchestras of his era, and the reputations of these wonderful works and their composer saw a proper rehabilitation. A really nice aspect of this Schumann symphony cycle, though, is that Georg Solti recorded it with a modern orchestra some years before performance on historically authentic instruments took hold. The lovely balances one hears in these recordings were attained by the hand and ear of a skilled conductor, leading a responsive body of musicians.
All four symphonies in this set can be recommended without hesitation, owing to Solti's clear affinity for this music. It is difficult not to have favorites, though. Mine are the last two, particularly the "Rhenish". In this one, every mood and nuance is felt and heard, appropriate tempos are employed throughout. In the first three movements, the broad passages soar and the lovely, lyrical melodies sing. The stately fourth movement attains mighty proportions at times, in keeping with the religious sense of awe that inspired it. And the final movement spreads pure joy, all the more because Solti does not rush things. It moves along to be sure, but is allowed to unfold naturally. If a better performance of this symphony exists I have not heard it.
In the Fourth Symphony, Solti gets the proper drama from this often brooding work, but surrenders to its tender moments as well. George Szell's recording arguably does these things better, attaining a remarkable structural sense and building to a breathtaking conclusion--and beating Solti to the finish line by nearly five minutes. But Solti is not out-classed here; his is just a different approach. While Szell seemingly injects more of himself into his reading--he was also known to have re-touched Schumann's scores, presumably over the balance issue--Solti takes Schumann more at face value. Both approaches work just fine for me.
When these recordings were first issued on LP in the late Sixties, they were praised for their warmth of sound--and criticized for not revealing enough detail. The Third and Fourth Symphonies were remastered for an LP re-issue, and this time more detail was present, but the warm glow was diminished. Needless to say, the low-resolution medium of compact disc does not settle any of this one way or another. But the recordings sound okay to my ears, and I enjoy them too much to quibble about technical matters.
Since these recordings were made, many other Schumann symphony cycles have been released, particularly after music scholars demonstrated their "rightness" performed on the instruments for which they were conceived. But, because Solti's recordings seem unjustly neglected these days, I would like to briefly mention others from the same era that also seem deserving. Of course, George Szell's Schumann recordings are outstanding, and there remains perhaps enough of a following for this conductor to ensure their survival in the marketplace. And there is Jerzy Semkow, whose Schumann cycle with the St. Louis Symphony for Vox remains very satisfying. Semkow was an underrated conductor and, at the time of these recordings, the St. Louis musicians had not received their due. Semkow, and his successor Walter Susskind, helped to lead this fine orchestra to prominence. Semkow's Schumann cycle, originally on LP and later on CD, may be hard to find just now, but worth the search.
In any case, thanks to Decca for keeping these wonderful Schumann performances by Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic available in the digital age. They cannot become obsolete, and should continue to please all who value great music, well-played.