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Ionarts at Large: Schumann Terrific, Brahms Terrible

Robert Schumann’s “Herrmann & Dorothea Overture” op.136 is probably not better known than the once loved and now forgotten ’idyllic epic’ of Goethe that served as inspiration and namesake. Schumann may not have composed grand music for it, but in concert this utterly charming, rather light and airy work is a splendid curtain raiser – a just like the opening ‘throw-away’ joke is sometimes the best part of a Sunday cartoon.

That the overture is laced with quotes from the Marseillaise – often and obviously – goes back to Schumann’s intention to write a whole opera on the subject of Goethe’s epic which opens with a scene of German refugees fleeing from advancing French Soldiers. (Though if you listen to Schumann, you’d think on their heals was rather a flock of frolicking Frenchmen on their way to a boating party.) Even if Christian Thielemann, conducting the Munich Philharmonic in this opening Schumann-salvo of their May 11th concert, isn’t known for a particularly light touch, the overture came across as positively, quintessentially gay.

Before Schumann continued, Brahms’ Double Concerto was on the program. Cellist Antonio Meneses must know this concerto well enough – not the least because he first recorded it in 1981 with Anne-Sophie Mutter under Karajan. On Hänssler Profil he has a recording with Thomas Zehetmair under Kurt Sanderling. Alas, his knowledge turned to routine in this performance. Entries were not particularly clean, the cello’s tone unlovely above mp. On the plus side: nicely articulated pizzicatos and a fine, electric pianissimo. The orchestra around him played boomily, sometimes sloppy (missed entries, again), as if no one particularly cared about it, and with wayward horns in the third movement. None of this mattered, though, because one man heroically combined and focused everything that was bad about this performance on himself: Daniel Hope delivered a performance that was just shy of insulting.

Slinking through the work un- or under-rehearsed, playing out of tune notes with imprecision and as if his technical ability were taxed to the maximum (it shouldn’t be, by this concerto), the result was a travesty. Tinny, rough whenever digging into the notes, every double stop woefully approximated: this was no way to treat the audience. Or, for that matter, Brahms. How the two artists deduced that the – admittedly indiscriminate – applause demanded an encore, I don’t know. But in honor of Menahem Pressler, who retired his Beaux Arts Trio (in which Meneses and Hope were his most recent partners), they played a part just for violin and cello from Beethoven’s “Ich bin der Scheider Kakadu” trio.

This might not have boded well for the Schumann Fourth Symphony yet to come, but from the depths of artistic poverty, the concert catapulted the keen listener to the pinnacles of musical triumph.

Schumann’s chronologically second, but then heavily revised and last-to-be-published Symphony had recently been performed in Munich by Kent Nagano in its original version. A fine performance, indeed. The Mahler edition of the Symphony has been recorded excellently by Riccardo Chailly. But as if proof needed to be administered that Schumann can be all shades of fantastic without the meddling of others or by reverting to earlier drafts, Christian Thielemann put down a performance that was sumptuous and serious, never tedious, truly romantic - though not in the neurotic or wild and untamed way in which Leonard Bernstein makes Schumann work so well. (Well enough on his DG recordings, better still on [oop] Sony.)

Cohesive, swelling mightily, receding tenderly again, massive but not thick, this was a totality of harmonious noise played phenomenally well by his Munich Philharmonic players. Whether the cellos buzzing in true excitement, or the impeccable ensemble work of the brass, or the commanding volume of the whole apparatus in the finale, it felt like Thielemann put his foot down as one of the foremost interpreters of Schumann. Given his recent success with the ‘difficult’ Schumann Requiem I am ready to believe that he really is.

I must either completely re-evaluate his previous Schumann recordings (1 with 4, 2 and 3 with the Philharmonia) which I remember dismissing rather carelessly, or else hope for new Schumann recorded with the Munich Philharmonic which, if DG should decide to go that way, I’d await most eagerly.

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