In the 20th century, Schumann was often criticised for the shortcoming of orchestration skills in his symphonies, and conductors often used to tinker with his score. But then Sir John Eliot Gardiner came onto the scene and showed that when played with appropriate forces and in the right style, Schumann’s symphonies sounded perfectly fine. Since then, many conductors have followed suit in this direction, such as Nézet-Séguin, Ticciati and Heras-Casado, and it has almost become the trend to perform his symphonies with smaller orchestral forces and with transparency and lightness, bringing out the counterpoint in the inner voices.

Not so, Christian Thielemann and his Staatskapelle Dresden, who fielded huge orchestral forces – led by 14 first violins – for the Schumann symphonies. I caught them on tour at Tokyo’s Suntory Hall, part of the orchestra’s ten-day tour to Asia consisting of concerts in Beijing, Guangzhou, Macao and Tokyo in an all Schumann programme. In Tokyo, they performed the symphony cycle over two days and I heard the Third and Fourth.

Well, if you like your Schumann symphonies the old fashioned way with lush, sonorous strings and heroic horns and brass, then the Staatskapelle Dresden performance is for you. They are certainly a great-sounding orchestra, especially in the resonant acoustics of Suntory Hall, and from a purely aural point of view, their warm, all-enveloping orchestral sound is hard to beat. The commitment of the players cannot be faulted either; they performed with energy and technical skill, and seemed to be enjoying themselves under Thielemann’s commanding leadership. Lushness and grandeur are not the primary qualities that I look for in Schumann, and I found their style often too broad and heavy-handed.

Thielemann and the orchestra opened with Symphony no. 3 in E flat major, also known as the “Rhenish”. Although the title was not the composer’s, he was living by the Rhine in Düsseldorf when he wrote the work in 1850 and the work has been associated with its magnificent landscape. In Thielemann’s hands, the performance was indeed majestic, although not ponderous. The problem in this symphony was that there wasn’t enough attention to balance, and the large and resonant string section (and a particularly boomy timpani) often drowned out the woodwind solos and ensembles. On the other hand, the horns were heroic and glorious, demonstrating the strength of horn playing tradition in Dresden.

The outer movements, both marked Lebhaft (lively), could withstand Thielemann’s fairly boisterous approach, but the more intimate inner movements suffered, lacking in detail and finesse – his brushstrokes were too broad, and Schumann’s delicate phrasings or the harmonic tensions were not highlighted. The fourth movement (often associated with Cologne Cathedral) even had a hint of Wagnerian solemnity and grandeur.

Fortunately, though, there was a marked change in the Fourth Symphony. Here performed in the revised version of 1851, this work seemed to suit Thielemann’s temperament better. Also, typical of an orchestra on a tour, several of the woodwind principals – and the timpanist – changed in the second half, and these players were much more prominent and audible. The timpanist was also much more incisive and contributed to a generally tighter ensemble.

The main feature of the Fourth is its innovative structure with its four thematically integrated movements played without a break. Thielemann steered the transitions seamlessly and effectively, maintaining the dramatic tension throughout. After a solemn and dark opening over a dominant pedal note, the first movement flowed with energy and joy, whereas the brief second movement was serene and intimate, with oboist Céline Moinet and the cello principal playing the opening plaintive theme, followed by the gently cascading violin solo by the concertmaster. The steady but dramatic build-up from the Scherzo into the finale was thrilling, and immersed in the organ-like sonority of the brass chorale in this grand and majestic finale, I finally succumbed to the rich and opulent sound world of the Staatskapelle Dresden.

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