Thursday 27 May 2021

Romanticism with bite: Daniele Gatti conducts Schumann's symphonies with Dresden Festival Orchestra at opening of the festival

Schumann: Symphony No. 1 - Daniele Gatti, Dresden Festival Orchestra - Dresden Music Festival 2021 (Image from live stream)
Schumann: Symphony No. 1 - Daniele Gatti, Dresden Festival Orchestra - Dresden Music Festival 2021 (Image from live stream)

Schumann Symphonies; Dresden Festival Orchestra, Daniele Gatti; Live stream from Dresden Music Festival

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 25 May 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Texture, timbre and a sense of daring - Schumann's symphonies from the period instrument Dresden Festival Orchestra

This year's Dresden Music Festival is taking a mixed approach, during May there are live-streams and then in June there will be concerts with audience. This meant that the festival's opening concerts, featuring the Festival Orchestra, were two live-streams from the Kulturpalast, Dresden on 24 and 25 May 2021, when Daniele Gatti conducted the orchestra in a complete cycle of Schumann's symphonies.

Schumann's symphonies can sometimes seem rather underappreciated on the concert platform. We are long past the canard that he could not write for orchestra, but even so audiences do not really seem to have taken the works to heart in the way that they have those of Mendelssohn. But compared to Mendelssohn, who was writing string symphonies when he was a teenager, Schumann's symphonies  come relatively late in his output. It was the encouragement of his wife, Clara, which led to the first symphony in 1841, and the revised fourth was finished in 1851. The music is very linked to Robert's life with Clara, the two studying Bach together, for instance, and in the mid-1840s his move away from composing at the piano.Listening to these performances from Daniele Gatti (conducting from memory) and the period instrument Dresden Festival Orchestra, what I came to appreciate was the works' daring and the moments where the music seemed to look forward rather than back.

Gatti started Symphony No. 1, the so-called Spring Symphony, quite steadily, not too grand yet full of Romantic drama. From the first, it was clear that Gatti relished the sheer variety of textures and timbres that the period instruments allowed, and we could appreciate the subtle combinations of Schumann's orchestrations. When the main section of the movement came it was crisply vivid, again with contrasts and textures, and there was an intimacy to the second subject with a lovely transparency to the scoring. Yet Gatti also seemed to encourage an element of robustness, and he certainly avoided the sort of smooth, string dominated sound we tend to get in this music from modern orchestras. The slow movement was rather intense, and we came appreciate the full orchestral contribution not just the melodies, and this was followed by the robust dance of the scherzo. For the finale, after a grand build-up we had a rather grazioso dance, but Gatti's flexibility with the tempo encouraged the way the music seems to build and evaporate.

Symphony No. 2 opens with a brass chorale which here, hinted both at Bach (one of Schumann's interests at the time) and at Wagner! Gatti gave us a slow sense of the drama coalescing with no rush to get to the main section. When it did the result was lively but with an edge to it, and of course the tantalising moments when the chorale returns, the playing full of character yet never rushed. The busily vivid scherzo had almost a sense of Mendelssohn's fairies on Speed, whilst the slow movement featured some terrific instrumental solos (with great close-ups on camera). This movement was one which seemed to look forward, the music seeming to hint a dissolution but never quite unravelling. Gatti's relaxed demeanour belied the excitement of the finale, and he seemed get his results from sheer attention to detail. Again, there were moments that seemed to look forward, perhaps to Bruckner?

Schumann's Symphony no. 3 'Rhenish' was in fact the fourth to be written (what we know as the fourth symphony was written the same year as the first, but it had such a poor reception that it was withdrawn and he revised it ten years later). The opening movement made it clear that there was a nice astringent edge to the Romanticism in these performances, whilst Gatti's impulsive tempos brought a nice freedom to the piece. The scherzo started as a swaying slow dance, with something of a country dance about it, only developing more complexity as the music progressed. The third movement was graceful, with the feeling that her texture and timbre were more important than thematic material. The fourth movement returned us to the idea of the chorale, leading to almost Bachian counterpoint with Romantic overtones. Finally, the last movement could not have been by anyone other than Schumann!

The wind solos in the introduction to Symphony No. 4 seemed to hint at the chorale idea again, but when the main section arrived there was a sense of dark Romantic drama for all the melodic felicity of the material. And Gatti's tempos never seemed to settle into something comfortable, giving the music that sense of excitement and bite. By contrast, there was a gentle mellowness to the Romanze whilst this scherzo had a robust vigour. Finally, the crisp excitement of the finale seemed to arise out of the details in the orchestration, with Gatti really whipping up excitement to the end.

The performances are available on the festival's streaming page.

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