The pairing of Schumann and Brahms symphonies in the Berlin Philharmonic’s current cycle seems to have been simply coordinated by number: Schumann’s Symphony no. 2 in C, heard alongside Brahms’s Symphony no. 2 in D, was in fact the third he wrote. Had the intention been to chart the compositional chronologies of both composers, then the 1841 first version of what was eventually published as Schumann’s Symphony no. 4 in D minor might well have been placed here (instead it is being heard later in the cycle alongside Brahms's Fourth). Nonetheless, last night’s pairing threw up some interesting intertextual discoveries: for instance, the deployment of metrically contrasted trio sections in the second movement of the Schumann was also a feature of the third movement of the Brahms. 

Having heard the stunning opening concert in the first iteration of the cycle, I rejoined six days later for the repeat of the second program. Overall, while there was much to admire, it all felt a little less sparkling. Perhaps because it was the sixth concert in seven days in Berlin on the back of a gruelling international tour, there were definite signs of fatigue among the players, leading to occasional lapses of concentration: how rarely does one see string players in top orchestras out of sync with the bowing of their section? Moreover, a few places, especially in the Schumann, felt a little routine. The players still showed plenty of verve in the more extrovert and passionate parts, but I was only intermittently enraptured in more understated movements, such as the gorgeous Adagio espressivo third movement in the Schumann.

Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker © Monika Rittershaus
Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker
© Monika Rittershaus

Presenting two symphonies on a program is far from unprecedented, although it does tend to shape the audience’s expectations in subtle ways. In three of the four concerts here, a Brahms symphony occupies the second half (only in the third concert, where Schumann’s five-movement Rhenische is heard after Brahms’s later Symphony no. 3, is the tyranny of historical progression resisted). Since Brahms’s works are longer than their Schumannian counterparts, and (as was discussed in the review of the first concert) are being performed here using larger forces, Schumann’s Symphonies were willy-nilly forced into the role of curtain raisers, lighter fare before the real meat of the evening. This seemed particularly unfortunate in the case of Schumann’s Symphony no. 2, his longest and perhaps finest essay in the genre.

Last night the performance suffered from a few minor but irritating moments of less than perfect coordination, especially in the first half. The constantly circling music of the introduction to the first movement of the Schumann Symphony was deliberately kept quite static, with the pay-off coming as the temperature rose in the lead-up to the Allegro ma non troppo. The main theme in the first movement might have been more crisp, but it had a certain elegance nonetheless. The irrepressible main theme in the scherzo was fluent, but again I’d have liked even more Mendelssohnian perkiness. Kudos to the second violins, who made the most of their interjections. There were some lovely sectional contrasts in the first trio, where smooth strings answered the bubbly wind figure. The highlight of the third movement was a magical rendition of the fugato in a barely breathed undertone. Somehow, I found myself less energised by the finale than I wanted to be.

As in the first concert, the Brahms Symphony was the more impressive item. Aside from a moment of uncertainty as the first theme blossoms into forte, the first movement was delectable, with an especially characterful second theme from the violas and cellos. A magnificent solo from the outstanding principal horn led into a simply outstanding coda. The cellos also shone at the beginning of the second movement, with beautiful gradations of dynamics and intensity in their opening theme. The passion was almost palpable as the music turned towards the minor later in the movement. In the whimsical Allegretto grazioso third movement, the oboe solo was nicely shaped, while the two trios were controlled and crisp (although I couldn’t help wishing for something a little more fantastical, maybe even Schumannian in spirit). The final movement, played without any real pause, showcased the dynamic control of the orchestra: the sotto voce (in an undertone) first theme was whispered but never lost character, before bursting into life in the restatement. Rattle introduced plenty of nuances later on beyond those indicated in the score. The final pages had all the exuberance that the Schumann had been lacking.

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