The best recordings of Schumann’s Third “Rhenish” Symphony


OWhen Robert Schumann composed his Second Symphony in 1845, he was suffering from a deep depression. His third, the Rhine winewas completed in 1851 during a brief and stable period – a move from Dresden to Düsseldorf in 1850 as the city’s municipal musical director boded well for him and his even more famous pianist wife, Clara.

The “dark time” of the Second is nowhere heard in the Third. “Ein Stück Leben am Rhein” (“A Little Life on the Rhine”) is Schumann’s modest description of his five-movement symphony, and this “life” includes the solemn Feierlich (‘ceremonial’) fourth movement in which Schumann visualizes Archbishop von Geissel’s recent elevation to cardinal rank at Cologne Cathedral. But as by Beethoven Pastoralbefore her, the Rhine wine is not just a musical snapshot of rural or river life, but a large-scale German romantic symphony.

The best recordings of Schumann’s Third “Rhenish” Symphony

Wolfgang Sawallisch (conductor)

Staatskapelle Dresden (1973)

NDE 567 7682

As the man says, ‘It doesn’t mean a thing if it doesn’t have that swing’. No one rocks the Middle Rhine with more abandon than conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch. Lebhaft(‘lively’) is Schumann’s trademark for the opening movement, but the orchestra also brings exuberance and weight, drawing the listener into a surging current of sound, and the glorious horn fanfare welcomes us like a ray of sunshine. the Scherzo is suitably bucolic (magnificent horns again). What follows is not a slow movement as such, but a Schumann innovation: a charming intermezzo, played here with dexterity and refinement.

The glorious sound of Dresden Staatskapelle comes into its own in the Cologne Cathedral movement, where the three trombones make their first appearance, while the finale is brilliantly light on its toes, bringing Schumann’s Rhineland journey to a rousing end. There remains the perceived problem of the composer’s inability to orchestrate. Gustav Mahler, Michael Gielen and George Szell were among the composers and conductors who felt he needed a helping hand and so made their own revisions to the score, but Sawallisch simply trusted Schumann, and he also absolutely right. The only miscalculation in the recording is its failure to allow the timpanist’s harsh sticks to be fully heard. But it’s a small price to pay for something very special Rhine wine which it is difficult to imagine that it is exceeded.

Stanislaw Skrowaczewski (conductor)

German Radio
Philharmonie (2008)

Oehms Classics OC 708

‘Stan the Man’, as Skrowaczewski was known during his Hallé orchestra (one of best orchestras in the world) days, delivers a performance of staggering energy – even though he once described his Schumann conducting as “a bit crazy”. Just listen to its heartbreaking finale – it’s not just a rustic dance. Poetry and nobility are not left out, however, and the central movements are superbly executed. A prolific composer himself, Skrowaczewski knows orchestral balance, and it shows in an interpretation that, for all its brilliance, is also beautifully measured. The playing rivals the razor-sharp virtuosity that made George Szell’s Cleveland Orchestra recording such a favourite, and for a combination of seat-edge excitement and lively sound quality, Skrowaczewski takes a few hits.

Robin Ticciati (conductor)

Scottish Chamber Orchestra (2014)

Linn CKD450

There is much to be said for the deployment of smaller orchestral forces in Schumann’s four symphonies. Leaders in an ever-widening field in this regard are Robin Ticciati’s Scottish Chamber Orchestra (SCO) and Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s Chamber Orchestra of Europe, both of which have done a great spring cleaning in the textures of Schuman. Fast and fresh, both would be an ideal entry point for first-time buyers and also for those with lingering doubts about Schumann the symphonist, but forced to choose I’d opt for Ticciati, whose uplifting Rhine winehas all the makings of a modern classic. The opening move has “that swing”, and the SCO’s fabulous playing, especially their winds, is a pure delight, with superb timpani as well. Linn Records lets us hear it all with state-of-the-art SACD sound.

Rafael Kubelík (conductor)

Berlin Philharmonic (1964)

German Grammophon 477 8621

Schumann’s symphonies are the cornerstone of the Berlin Philharmonic. However, when you explore the various recordings of the orchestra Rhine wine , you’ll find that Herbert von Karajan’s obsession with surface sheen robs the symphony of its robustness. Simon Rattle, no doubt aware of the practice of the time, prefers a leaner sound and gives more prominence to the voices of the winds, but an even more tempting option is Rafael Kubelík’s brilliant vision of Rhineland life. Don’t expect flamboyant theatrics from Szell or Skrowaczewski, as the Czech was the least flamboyant of the great conductors. Instead, expect the love and understanding of a lifetime’s work. Illuminating both the “poet and the peasant” in the score, to use an expression from Dvoπák, this story has lost none of its brilliance and the sound quality is vintage Deutsche Grammophon.

And one to avoid

Even as Otto Klemperer’s avowed groupie in most German and symphonic things, all the enthusiasm I can muster for his 1969 recording of the Rhine wine The symphony is limited to Feierlichmovement, which has all the gravity that one expects from the German conductor. Otherwise it’s a bit laborious, with a weary-sounding New Philharmonia Orchestra dutifully following the moves. Unfortunately, this recording came ten years too late in Klemperer’s career.


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