This recording of Schumann is altogether an exceptional happening. Set down live in Vienna's Musikverein, it more than fulfils the promise of Abbado's Mozart with the same band. Many people think the Second is Schumann's finest symphony, no doubt because of its yearning slow movement. It certainly does reach the heights, although in one sense less than other versions: where the violins are scored an octave apart he emphasises the lower part, where my impression is usually of how high the writing goes at these moments. I like Abbado's way very much, as the heart of the music is ablaze. It is vigorous, solid, yet somehow airy in the way the sounds float up with maximum immediacy. It is as if we are in that big acoustic space with the air full of the sounds, big percussion, and like a dough where everything is properly mixed in, yet you can hear individual strands to perfection. It is only recently that this degree of faithfulness to the concert hall sound has been achieved, and it gets the full elusive wonder of that greatest of sounds, the orchestra. This degree of fullness and ambiance makes you feel the tension as if the performance were unfolding in real time. I compared it to Christian Thielemann's version from the 90s (also on DG) and there is no denying the extra degree of excitement in the sound of the new recording, even if the Thielemann is arguably clearer. From the bits I heard Abbado also opts for a slower tempo in the first movement, but beautifully sprung rhythmically, which made the other sound a bit too driven. The two overtures are also from the peak of Schumann's inspiration, Manfred being absolutely sublime in its transport - I don't think the orchestra has ever been made to sing with a more united passion, and the colour, so often criticised in the past, seems a thing of perfection in itself, like finding the perfectly upholstered sofa and never wanting to sit on any other!
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