Throughout the autumn of 1835 Schumann found himself again much in the company of Clara Wieck. She was now sixteen, but the many experiences crowded into her life had ripened her personality beyond all relation to her years. Her début at the Gewandhaus on 9th November, with Mendelssohn on the rostrum, set the seal on all her earlier successes, and there was now no doubting that a great future lay before her as a pianist to whom the poetry of music mattered above all else. Ever since she was a child of nine Schumann had followed up her achievements with whole-hearted admiration; he had watched the gradual unfolding of her mind and of her heart, and now, in her eyes, he saw a look which told him the truth about their relationship. She loved him, he loved her, they had always loved each other, and he knew then in a flash of intuition that the paths of their lives would one day converge. No word was spoken, but the evening before Clara set out on a concert tour in November, Schumann came to say goodbye, and kissed her as she guided him, light in hand, down the stairs. They met next in December at Zwickau, where Clara was giving a concert, and they kissed again.

(Joan Chissell, The Master Musicians, Schumann)

It has often been charged that Robert Schumann’s orchestral works are little more than thinly-veiled transcriptions of musical thoughts that fall more naturally on the keyboard, and that he lacked the necessary skill to realize his purely orchestral ideas effectively.

I don’t think that Schumann’s orchestration is poor. It has not the instrumental relief, the colour, of Berlioz’s orchestra, but the reason is, in my opinion, in the difference between the ideas and feelings both expressed. Schumann is much more turned within himself, not very tempted by descriptions or great effects. His Symphony No. 2, my preferred, is a melancholic work that could not have the transparency of Mendelssohn or the colour of Berlioz.

The only problem with his symphonies is perhaps in the fact that the sonata form was not the ideal vehicle for Schumann’s personality. The development is sometimes reduced to systematic repetitions of the main ideas, with no real evolution. This seems more obvious to me in the Symphony No. 4 and the Cello Concerto. But in general we accept that because of the sublime beauty of those ideas.

And there is the overture Manfred, an extraordinary work, to me the best work that Schumann composed for orchestra, also conceived in a sonata form with three motifs, a real development and a very original (and disturbing) coda.

Some of the stuff Schumann did in the symphonies is fairly demanding and sometimes a little awkward to play, but his orchestration is excellent, a very unique sound world which a lot of people simply don’t get because it is rather different from what many other composers did. His symphonies can sound absolutely marvellous in the hands of interpreters who can realize that unique differentiated sound. He was basically decades ahead in some aspects of his orchestration. There are even elements in it that point forward to Debussy.

Listen to Barenboim for a very “romantic”, “full bodied” approach, Gardiner for a very lean, transparent and highly coloured sound; Sawallisch is excellent, too, he allows the sound to unfold and bloom. I also rather like Dohnányi’s Cleveland recordings. Other really great readings are Harnoncourt and Muti which get great musical results in their very different way. Muti is very compact and “classical” and achieves great transparency and finely tinted textures, while Harnoncourt’s readings are very extrovert, bouncy, very lyrical and expressive – probably the most “romantic” readings I have heard – but very “early romantic”, not “late romantic”.

Whatever some people may have to criticize about the orchestration – and some even tampered rather massively with it, like Mahler did – Schumann’s symphonies have been very popular for a long time.

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