Christian Thielemann / Staatskapelle Dresden

Schumann: Symphonies

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Robert Schumann's four symphonies, so far divorced from the intimate worlds of his songs and piano pieces, were never terribly common items during the LP golden age. It was John Eliot Gardiner and his historical-instrument Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique who opened these works up by slimming them down, so to speak, revealing inner parts with telling motivic details and offering a convincing 19th-century chamber orchestral approach. None of that for Christian Thielemann and the Staatskapelle Dresden, recorded live in Tokyo's Suntory Hall. The good news is that these are superior representations of the old approach. The Staatskapelle Dresden has one of Europe's undisputed top brass sections, and Thielemann puts them front and center here. Sample the first movement of the Symphony No. 1 in B flat major, Op. 38 ("Spring"), where the relaxed brass set a festive tone for the whole cycle. Suntory Hall was famously described by Herbert von Karajan as a jewel box of sound, and indeed it turns out extremely well here. There is no audience noise at all, and applause is stripped out. Though it seats 2,000, there is no cavernous feeling, and Thielemann is able to bring out a good deal of detail in the interplay of strings, brass, and winds. He tries to balance the big outer movements with hyperexpressive slow movements with many variations in tempo, and whether or not this works will be a matter of taste. What's not under dispute, however, is Thielemann's ability to shape this venerable orchestra to his expressive goals. The effect of these recordings is entirely different from that of Wolfgang Sawallisch's reading with the same group. Recommended for those who enjoy a muscular approach in the German symphonic repertory.

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