Review: Classical music: Schumann Revealed / John Eliot Gardiner

CLASSICAL MUSIC Schumann Revealed / John Eliot Gardiner Barbican, London
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Schumann at the Barbican last weekend was "Revealed", refined and slenderised for a health-conscious age. John Eliot Gardiner's interpretative priorities were to clarify, strengthen and dispense with unnecessary instrumental doublings - and there can be little doubt that, between Friday and Sunday, his performances graduated from self-conscious zeal to genuine interpretative distinction. Friday's Spring Symphony entered to a raucous blast from the brass then limbered up for a bracing Allegro molto vivace - swift, bucolic, with braying valveless horns and hectic strings (the players standing as per Mendelssohn's directive). This was carefree Schumann, boldly energetic and toughened against the tender questionings passed by more traditional interpreters. Which was fine - and yet where was the geniality, the humanity, the warmth? The slow movement was chaste and shapely but oddly impersonal; the Scherzo very well integrated (with divided fiddles hopping to and fro), the finale properly "animato" - but "grazioso"? I mean, graceful? Come on! OK, there was the odd spot of rubato, but the general impression was breathless and impatient.

The cut-to-the-bone 1841 "first" version of the Fourth Symphony seemed better judged, although parts of the Scherzo were overemphatic and the finale wasn't a patch on Saturday's "encore" performance, served after a masterly account of the 1851-52 revision. By now, Gardiner was balancing luminosity with passion, and the effect was exhilarating. Suddenly I imagined what it might be like to cut my teeth on his Schumann then switch to, say, Kubelik or Furtwangler as for the first time. Would I then experience these treasured old masters as hopelessly indulgent? I doubt it less now than I would have done before Saturday's performance of the 1851 Fourth Symphony.

The concert had opened with a fleet, balletically-turned account of the delightful Overture, Scherzo and Finale, the Scherzo suggesting Wagner's Valkyries on tip-toe. Gardiner's pacing was judicious, textures were appropriately open and the performance culminated in a blazing brass peroration. Of the two concertos programmed, it was Saturday's Piano Concerto, performed by Robert Levin on a restored 1850 Streicher instrument, that came off best. Levin and Gardiner collaborated for a supple, fluently phrased rendition, much abetted by the piano's water-coloured tonal properties (a bright treble and resonant bass) and with an especially capricious reading of the central "Intermezzo". Here was a true meeting of minds, or so it seemed, whereas Friday's presentation of the Violin Concerto pitted Thomas Zehetmair's highly emotive and fancifully inflected playing against a coolly attenuated accompaniment. The effect was compounded by the visual clash of Zehetmair's hirsute trendiness and Gardiner's headmasterly profile, but the apparent mismatch was definitely musical.

The real "revelation" of the series was Sunday's presentation of Schumann's choral masterpiece Das Paradies und die Peri (1843), where a superb septet of soloists, led by the soprano Barbara Bonney, was supported by a full- throated Monteverdi Choir. Gardiner's performance was easily the best I've heard, expertly paced, sensitive at every turn (especially to the Bachian balefulness that greets the slaying of the "young man" and the Berlioz-style orchestration of the baritone's principal aria in Part 3) and consistently illuminating. The work itself suggests a string of unfamiliar Lieder charged with dramatic continuity. It was an utterly riveting experience, although I wouldn't have missed the afternoon chamber concert where, beyond a fetching sequence of shorter works, Steven Isserlis, Daniel Phillips and Robert Levin balanced body and soul for a sweetly voiced and wonderfully spontaneous account of the D minor Piano Trio. Again, the spirit of the Lied was uppermost, and yet here was the tenderness, vulnerability and sense of equivocation that, earlier in the series, had occasionally slipped away with the dirty bath-water of stultifying tradition.

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