Schumann has often had a rough deal. His orchestrations have been deemed inadequate and in want of “improvements” by fellow-musicians like Mahler and Szell; his last major work, the Violin Concerto in D minor, was criticised by its dedicatee Joseph Joachim as indicating “a certain fatigue”. So much so, in fact, that having conspired with the composer’s widow to keep it from all public scrutiny, he stipulated in his own will that the unloved piece should not be performed or even published for a hundred years.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja

The story of how this work eventually found the light of day is full of remarkable twists and turns, involving Joachim’s great-niece and her use of a Ouija board to communicate with spirits from the past, and a battle between the Nazi regime and others to ensure that the piece was premiered in Berlin. Then, tainted in the post-war period by earlier attempts to exploit its Aryan associations, it struggled somewhat to establish itself as a repertory piece.

This has not stopped succeeding generations from taking it up. Patricia Kopatchinskaja, the soloist in this performance, has recorded it, as has the conductor, Christoph Eschenbach, here in charge of the SWR Symphony, albeit with different musical partners. PatKop is a big personality and big personalities can often enable lesser works to emerge from the shadows. She stressed the angularity of much of the writing in the first movement where there are big leaps and a run that spans two octaves. Barefoot and frequently standing on her toes, her body seemed to be following every arc in the music, responsive both to the Florestan-like outbursts of passion, but also the hushed moments of Eusebius-inspired introspection at the opposite end of the dynamic scale.

A surprise was waiting at the end of the opening movement. Eschenbach, who had already provided a warm and supportive accompaniment, moved from the podium to an upright Grotrian-Steinweg piano (the company dates back to 1835) to play the theme from Schumann’s Geistervariationen, the composer’s final keyboard work. This piece is as mysterious and ghostly as the title suggests and proved a perfect introduction to the central slow movement. Here it was as if PatKop was exploring the borderline between life and what lay beyond, feeling the pain in every phrase, paring her tone down to almost nothing as the ethereal sounds from her instrument floated above the orchestral textures. This sense of anguish was echoed in the short Kurtág encore she played at the end of the concerto.

Christoph Eschenbach

Who are reviewers to question the markings composers gave to their scores? Schumann’s instruction for the Finale is “lively, but not fast”. The character of this movement suggests something ceremonial and has been compared to a polonaise. When it is played at a swifter tempo than we had from PatKop it can appear more festive, but her physical enjoyment in the long cantilenas was very evident. 

Eschenbach was also entirely inside Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony. Conducting from memory, his tempi were always appropriate, and he found an ideal blend between the rustic charm and the liveliness of spirit which finds its expression in the many well-sprung dance rhythms. Two things stood out especially. There was a wonderfully spooky quality to the Adagio where the clarinets hooted like owls from inside a dark wood, string tremolos underpinning the tension. In the minor key section of the Finale Eschenbach accentuated the Turkish quality of the writing for woodwind and brass.

Nothing too remarkable about the video direction: there were many close-ups of individual players, the camera often lingering on the expressive face of the principal cello.

This performance was reviewed from the SWR live video stream