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Non plus ultra Schumann
on 27 November 2012
Paavo Järvi and his Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen have set an exalted benchmark for the art of today's Beethoven interpretation with their recordings of the nine symphonies in 2010. Now they are back on DVD, this time in perfect audio and video on Blu-ray, with a recording of the four Schumann symphonies that includes a 98-minute concert film, "Schumann at Pier 2". The Blu-ray disk has an amazing total running time of 271 minutes, with a 27-minute lightweight bonus on the "making" of the Schumann project and some touristy stuff on the city-state of Bremen thrown in. Those of us familiar with Järvi's Beethoven project have been impatiently looking forward to the Schumann recordings with high hopes, and the finished product exceeds all expectations indeed. This is Schumann like you never heard him before. The recording venue (no date given), a former dock warehouse and now a "popular" events center in Bremerhaven, is nicely done up, lighting is fairly discreet (better than in the Beethoven project), the acoustics are very acceptable, and the camera work is excellent - as opposed to the somewhat choppy and hectic filming of the Beethoven symphonies.
But the truth is in the music. The Kammerphilharmonie musicians are a group of virtuoso soloists second to no other orchestra on earth: their contributions, as individuals, groups, or in full force, are simply superb. The orchestra's size (ca. 50 musicians) might be a close match to what Schumann had at his disposal, the sound is highly transparent (you can literally hear every voice) but at the same time quite powerful in the tutti passages. The playing fully vindicates Schumann's proverbially and wrongly maligned orchestration and brings out its romantic beauty. Gone is all the murk and the lard so often present in "traditional" big-band Schumann interpretations: everything is clear, every note shines out, nothing is lost or buried under doubled strings and woodwinds. This sound purification is a true archeological triumph. Järvi's conception of the symphonies is both tender and passionate: every nuance is given true weight, the abrupt transitions from serene to frantic passages within the same movement are handled brilliantly, and the cohesion of the whole work is always present. In the film's interviews, Järvi talks about the "neurotic" elements of the music - glossed over by most interpretations - which are highlighted here for the first time in the long and checkered history of Schumann readings. Tempi are neither excessively fast nor slow overall, they are just right, even when the "presto" in the Fourth's finale is brought home with breakneck speed.
The First is elegant and festive: a romantic homage to spring and a celebration of the composer's own youthful leap into the symphonic genre. In stark contrast stands the multilayered Second with its sharp edges, its moments of darkness and anxiety but also its incredibly moving tenderness. The "Rhenish" Third is presented with all its colorful atmospheric splendor and pomp: note the beautiful brass playing, especially in the chorale. There are touches of spirituality here, but also a dance-like lightness very well captured. In the Fourth (actually the second symphony) we can see the composer's growth from the rarely heard original version ("Leinsdorf in Rehearsal", 1982, has it on DVD) to his final thoughts. Järvi and his Bremer musicians give it the most dramatic performance I have ever heard. All together, this set of the symphonies stands by itself: it towers above more "conventional" readings and is fully in tune with the spirit of every note and the symphonic cosmos it comprises as a whole. Don't miss it!
The concert film is very well done. Individual musicians play particularly significant passages and share their thoughts eloquently, and excerpts from the rehearsals are interspersed. I treasure most Paavo Järvi's introductions to the symphonies and his - in part touchingly personal - reflections. Here is a proud and reserved musician of the highest standard revealing his deeper connections with this music obviously close to his heart. A wonderful experience.