Good grief. Having bought Christian Thielemann's splendid recordings Schumann's Second(an especially marvellous interpretation) and Third Symphonies, I was looking forward to hearing what insights he could bring to the First and Fourth. Unfortunately, the resulting CD contains the worst performances of any pieces of the central repertoire that I(and a number of friends whose musical opinions I value) have ever heard. I am in a particularly advantageous position to appreciate just how dreadful the performance of the Fourth is since, in the week when I bought this recording, I conducted the piece twice. The First Symphony, while sluggish and with little feel for instrumental colour, is marginally more successful but most of the comments about the Fourth can be applied to that piece too, more's the pity. To start at the beginning: there is a dreadful edit thirty seconds in to the first movement of the Fourth, when a clarinet pops up from nowhere. Surely, if Deustche Grammophon are willing to pay the huge expenses of hiring a conductor, orchestra and recording team, they could iron out errors like this? Sonic mistakes aside, the performance is simply awful. Thielemann actually succeeds in making the Philharmonia(who, believe me, are one of the world's very best orchestras) sound unpleasant. The balances throughout are poor; chiefly, the winds, brass and timpani are muffled behind a thick blanket of string sound and there is seemingly no attempt to ensure precision of ensemble. Entries are messy on an unacceptably large number of occasions(more than this orchestra would flunk live) and, as a result, the symphony sounds monochrome and slack. Thielemann's tempos are, uniformly, far too slow; in the first movement of the Fourth, he finally reaches the tempo he should have started with by the end of the movement by producing an unmarked accelerando. The Romanze is also far too sluggish; it doesn't sound beautiful, just stodgy. Similar problems affect the finale(in which, I was dismayed to find having already suffered through 65 minutes of this CD, Thielemann observes the big repeat). So much for the playing and timings. As for the actual interpretation, Thielemann does actually suggest that he has no understanding of sonata form(or indeed any musical sense) whatsoever. Almost every interpretative gesture he makes weakens the structure of the symphony. The most glaring example is in the first movement. Around bar 130(and at the repeat), after the dramatic pauses that Schumann indicates, Thielemann inserts the most tasteless(and, not surprisingly, unmarked) ritardando that I've ever heard. Although the passage is marked 'dolce', there should be no slowing since this breaks the line of the movement. Conducting the piece myself, I went to great lengths to ensure that my violinists stayed in tempo. Similarly, 'dolce' does not mean 'produce enough vibrato that you get the fiddle to sound like a Wagnerian soprano.' Thielemann, however, is more than happy to do just that.
There are, it seems, two ways of interpreting Schumann's 4th: a)emphasise its continuity(a la Gunter Wand, whose RCA recording is currently unavailable) or b)emphasise differences(as Harnoncourt does in his Berlin Philharmonic recording). Thielemann succeeds neither in one of these options nor in forging his own way forward. In sum, this is a badly played(although frankly I'm not surprised that the Philharmonia sound fed up of the whole mess), poorly recorded(nasty 'glassy' string sound), utterly witlessly interpreted performance. It's a waste of money, an insult to the composer and what is, thankfully, an increasingly rare item: a total artistic disgrace. Avoid it and stick to Wand, Kubelik or Harnoncourt.