As a symphonist, historians have remained equivocal about Robert Schumann’s contributions. Gustav Mahler, for example, completely re-orchestrated and revised all four of Schumann’s symphonies before he would conduct them, and even today complete CD sets of these Mahlerian “improvements” sell quite well. This past weekend, San Diego Symphony music director Jahja Ling made a compelling case for Schumann’s Second Symphony in C Major—just as the composer wrote it. I caught the Sunday matinee (Dec. 15), and found both Schumann and Ling’s orchestra in fine fettle.
Like other members of the post-Beethoven generation of European composers, Schumann found composing in theshadow of Beethoven’s imposing nine symphonies daunting. Before Beethoven, dashing off a four-movement symphony was no big thing: in his short life Mozart wrote over 40 symphonies, and the august Joseph Haydn composed over 100. But Beethoven raised the bar, and now the symphony had to be a profound statement about the human condition, rather than a mere musical divertissement for an instrumental ensemble.
Schumann labored over a year to complete his classically constructed Second Symphony, one without an audience-friendly Romantic program attached to it like his own earlier “Spring” Symphony or Mendelssohn’s “Reformation,” “Italian,” and “Scottish” Symphonies. In his Second Symphony, however, Schumann does quote themes from J. S. Bach’s “The Art of Fugue” and makes thematic allusions to Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven along the way: there is a cottage industry that offers detailed analyses of these quotations (e.g. kennethwoods.net/blog1/2011/11/26/explore-the-score-schumann-symphony-no-2).
Unlike those devoted Wagnerites who memorize leitmotifs to track every nuance of dramatic implication in the Ring Cycle’s orchestration, you do not need to note every thematic allusion to experience the power and depth of Schumann’s Second Symphony.
Ling emphasized the nobility and the grand Romantic aspiration in the work’s outer movements, and his players responded with warmth and cogent unity. Their discipline was tested in the blazing Scherzo, and the strings came through with flying colors. Although the theme that opens the Adagio came from Bach, its wistful melancholy, which the violins communicated exquisitely, was portrayed as only the composer of Die Winterreise could have imagined.[php snippet=1]
I wish I could be equally enthusiastic about Yefim Bronfman’s account of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto in G Major. Although everything he did was tastefully mellifluous and his technical acumen was eveident at every turn, the Concerto suffered from too much understatement and never caught fire. Perhaps to compensate, as an encore he dashed off some flashy Prokofiev—the Precipitato from his Seventh Piano Sonata—with adolescent abandon. That the Sunday afternoon audience wildly applauded this feat did not speak well for their discernment.
In his program book comments, Ling expressed his great fondness for Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera Hänsel und Gretel, and his unaffected, tender account of the “Prelude” to this fairy tale opera confirmed his sincere appreciation. The hushed strings and mellow horn choir at the Prelude’s opening were enchanting, and the contrasting section danced with spirited innocence.