Glorious Schumann C Major Symphony lights up the concert

CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★★

The ‘Spring’ and ‘Rhenish’ may be more popular but Schumann’s second symphony is surely his greatest. Richard Egarr agreed and conducted a performance of immense vitality, studied detail and great beauty, played superbly by every section of the CBSO. Egarr’s engaging and informative prefatory talk cited Bach as the keystone to the work: the old master being both a musical and spiritual inspiration for Schumann’s fervid genius and troubled soul. Egarr preceded the symphony with an orchestral arrangement of Bach’s short and cryptic ‘Fuga a tre soggetti’, from the immense and unfinished ‘Art of the Fugue’. I’m sure that both talk and music helped newcomers in understanding Schumann’s sublime Adagio where as a response to its disturbing sepulchral opening figure, rising from Stygian basses to tremolando high strings plus the bleak loneliness of the cries in the wilderness from solo oboe and clarinet, there is an oasis of spiritual calm in a passage of Bachian polyphony. Egarr took exactly ten minutes here resisting the temptation to add an unwritten ‘Molto’ to Schumann’s tempo, although giving into temptation – as Bernstein and Sinopoli did – has its own rewards in depth of expression. The blazing finale was truly molto vivace with brass, timpani and whooping horns exultant with the soaring darkness-to-light ending enhanced by Egarr’s own forgivable indulgence in a little Ritardando. Even his insistence on the orchestra taking a series of awkward and extravagant choreographed bows – performed with mixture of cynicism, mock enthusiasm and obvious reluctance – could not vitiate the triumph.

With the possible exception of his eleventh piano concerto none of Haydn’s concerti match the stature of his finest symphonies yet only a musical misanthrope could resist the charms of his Cello Concerto in D. The young soloist Laura van der Heijden was exemplary in her clear and unfussy articulation, warm mellow tone, delicate touches like the little pizzicato passage in the Adagio, and unbuttoned energy, matched by the CBSO players, in the jolly Rondo finale. Egarr’s choice to conduct from the harpsichord – totally inaudible and utterly redundant – involved him in ungainly bobbing up and down from his stool and some pointless one-handed semaphore. Bach’s Orchestral Suite No.3, with the orchestra retuned and strings played sans vibrato, was one for fanciers of “authentic” performance. The mighty and majestic Ouverture was inadvertently comic at Eggar's galloping tempo; like hearing Klemperer or Karl Richter’s vintage LP recordings played at 45rpm instead of at 33rpm.

Norman Stinchcombe

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