SCHUMANN: Symphonies Nos. 1-4
Berlin Philharmonic/Simon Rattle
Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings
You had to be at least a bit surprised when the Berlin Philharmonic launched its own record label. The orchestra had already taken a much more daring step with the 2008 launch of its Digital Concert Hall, which streams and archives video of nearly all of its subscription programs. Simon Rattle, in a 2009 interview, called it “the future of the recording industry.” So it’s not immediately clear what the orchestra is hoping to accomplish by plunging into what at this point seems like a throwback medium.
But say this for the Philharmonic: It doesn’t do things halfway. In this set of the Schumann symphonies, you get two conventional CDs; a Blu-ray disc with hi-definition audio and video, plus behind-the-scenes promo videos; a download card for studio-quality audio; and a one-week pass for the Digital Concert Hall. The whole thing is housed in a gorgeous hardcover book with thoughtful essays in English and German. As a package, it’s without peer.
I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the performances. With all the care that went into the audio production, why does the sound have such a not-quite-there sense overall? Why are so many of the attacks messy? Why do the timpani register so little impact? Also distressing is Rattle’s penchant to micromanage the musical flow, so that what sticks out are the details he chooses to underline rather than the broader current that carries them along. It’s attention-getting, but not in a particularly enlightening way.
It’s not all bad. There is some characterful wind playing, and the orchestra generates serious heat in the finales of the Second and Third Symphonies. Rattle also chooses the earlier 1841 version of the Fourth Symphony, which is notable if not unheard of. But when you compare these accounts with some acknowledged classics — Sawallisch, Bernstein, Dohnanyi, Kubelik — they fall short despite the lavish presentation.