I have to say that, exhausted as I was coming to rehearsal from Heathrow after my flight back from Boston, I could hardly hide my glee as the SMP and I read the first movement of Schumann 4 on Monday night. It went so well, I almost complimented them, but that’s bad luck (for instance, the most important thing advice I can offer any conductor is never to praise or criticize a horn player until after the concert). We’ll save compliments for a safer hour (although I know several will read this before rehearsal tonight).
My glee is due to the fact that with more than half our Schumann exploration now behind us, I could really feel that first rehearsal was proof positive that we have accomplished something together in terms of learning the grammar of Schumann’s music language. Having just done another Schumann symphony with a fine orchestra who have done almost nothing by Bobby S in recent memory, it really hit home how much I had had to explain and ask for with the other band, and how much the SMP were doing right off.
So what is the key playing Schumann well?
It’s depressingly simple- play it like the great music it is. All the complete and total condescending and inane crap we’ve all heard about Schumann’s orchestration, sanity and supposed weaknesses as a composer means that most musicians, completely without malice, read his music with terribly low expectations. They disregard dynamics and tempi, and don’t throw themselves into the music as they would if it was Beethoven or Brahms. Not long ago I did a Schumann work with a guest timpanist, nice guy, who asked me about possible note changes saying “well, we all know Schumann was pretty careless with timpani notes.” WTF?!?!?!??!?! The result is grey and grim playing and tedious rehearsals, all of which reinforces those same sad, wrong preconceptions. Last night the SMP ripped into the piece as if they fully expected it to be great, and why shouldn’t they? Our last 2 Bobby S symphonies left the audiences screaming and hollering.
So, the secret to being a Schumann specialist is to trust him and take what he wrote seriously. No secret insight is required. Likewise, I remember vividly studying Bloch’s Schelomo with Parry Karp, who is in my opinion, the world expert on Bloch’s string music. I was so excited to find out the “secret handshake” of Bloch playing, which turned out to be playing exactly what the dead guy wrote in the score. The results were stunning! Depressingly, many teachers seem to think that holding out the notion that somehow they are the keepers of secret knowledge not in the score is often the norm. They put power over their students ahead of teaching the truth of the music.
I mentioned yesterday that we are playing the first Leonore Overture (no. 2) on the same concert, giving us a chance to juxtapose two pieces that were famously revised. The original version of Schumann 4 has come back into fashion in the last 15 years, and has been recorded many times. It’s quite interesting, but as so happens with Schumann, the re-emergence of this version has been used as a new hammer with which to beat the reputation of the great Bobby S.
Anytime a piece exists in more than one version there are bound to be things in the original that, on their own, are cooler than in the revision. Usually, when they disappear in the revision it is because they caused problems for the piece as a whole- perhaps they overpowered what was to come, or revealed too much of where the music needed to go, or brought the form to a halt. For instance, Leonore 2 is full of things that are extremely cool but demand incredible concentration from the audience- like the vast silences after the ff chords in the introduction. I think one night with a coughing, shuffling audience probably convinced Beethoven that he needed to fill those gaps, but in the concert hall or on recording, the effect can be stunning. Also, the piece was too dramatic and complete to serve as a prelude to the opera which followed it.
That said, I find it remarkable how much better the revised version of Schumann 4 is- not because I expected Bobby to botch the re-write, but because the new, trendy view seems to be so solidly that the original is in some ways better (this started with Brahms, who was also badly wrong about the Violin Concerto- many of the misjudgements about Bobby come from his 3 closest soulmates, Joachim, Clara and Brahms, all of whom were too close to his final illness and badly misjudged the work of his later years).
The fact is that the revision is much more coherent, powerful, focused and lucid. The transitions all work better, the counterpoint is stronger, the sense of direction more compelling. I last did this piece on my final concert with the Grande Ronde Symphony. It’s placement on a momentous night of my life tells you something of how much I love it, but I still long considered it a slightly lesser work than the 2nd and 3rd symphonies. Now I’m not so sure- like Brahms, it’s almost impossible to pick the best Schumann symphony. The D minor is intentionally slight in some ways (he considered calling it Symphonic Fantasy), but somehow it’s structural tautness means that the whole is far more than the sum of the parts. Where the 2nd is truly epic, the 4th moves ahead with almost cinematic alacrity, which meant the cumulative energy of the symphony is titanicly explosive.
Most stupidly, many critics (following Brahms misguided lead) seem to think that the orchestration of the revision is inferior to that of the original. Both versions are beautifully orchestrated, but the revision is clearly better. Schumann wanted a bigger, more robust sound, and he got what he wanted. Schumann was an early Romantic composer- orchestration had not yet attained the status of almost a separate art that it would once Wagner arrived, but his imagination is astonishing. Remember, we just did the Konzerstucke for 4 Horns last month, which, considering the valve horn was a brand new invention, is quite simply the most creative and effective writing for horn quartet in musical history. The 4th is full of great orchestral moments, particularly his compelling dramatic use of the trombones at the key moments of the piece, as well as the wonderful colors in the Romanze, particularly the mixture of solo cello and oboe, and the beautiful violin solo in the b section. Karajan got it- he made a point in his recordings of all the Schumann symphonies not to re-touch anything. The results speak for themselves.
Too often, though, the audience doesn’t get to hear what a good conductor can see on the page because conductor and orchestra approach Bobby’s orchestration with scandalously low expectations, and they get what they were after. When we play a Mahler symphony or a Strauss tone poem (or even a Beethoven overture, whose orchestral writing is far more problematic), we expect the orchestration to be great, and that translates into a kind of hyper-energized playing that brings the musical content vividly to life. Schumann deserves the same treatment, and now SMP seem to get that- they’re playing it with the swagger that comes from knowing that the audience is going to go berserk for it. Fun.