Symphony no. 2 in C, op. 61; Overture Genoveva op. 81 (NPO/Klemperer)
Schumann was proud of his op 61, and called it his Jupiter, meaning not just the key but the scale. Yet he felt it was born of his depressive illness in 1845, and (though neither ill-conceived nor invalid) had inherited the symptoms. It has a programme of recovery, complete with motto - per ardua ad astra, as Dr Carner's interesting note suggests. The theme is beautifully illustrated by the Friedrich coverpicture: in the foreground, a pensive traveller; in the middle distance, a sombre and daunting mountain; above, a rainbow-spanned sky.
If the symphony expresses mixed feelings, it also arouses them. For some hearers, it sounds better ill than well, eg when the finale’s lapses into melancholy provide a measure of tragic relief. If some parts really are better than others, they may date from happier days; and in the C minor symphony-sketches of 1841 some of the notes for an Adagio seem more than marginally relevant to op 61 (see eg ex 99b, last stave, in Schumann: a symposium, ed Abraham). Dr Carner diagnoses a further complication. He feels that the finale has a “quotation” (my quotation marks) from An die ferne Geliebte, perhaps intended by Schumann as a message to his wife, implying (since she was so very far from distant in any ordinary sense) a spiritual separation. Perhaps on this view he had subconsciously wished Clara further after their Russian tour of 1844, on which her serene pre-eminence and his nervous prostration may not have been unrelated. At least the symphony begins on a note of modest self-assertion; second fiddles call the tune, and trumpets are blown.
On most interpretations the music is in two minds, introvert and extravert, linked by monothematic (and motto-thematic) construction and extramusical allusion. Of course such a tour de force must be conducted personally. But there is always the risk of assuming that because the listener is meant to be affected, so is the music; so this symphony sometimes has its prose turned into poetry and its poetry into rhetoric, as if raised to a higher power. Schumann’s inspiration was humanist every sense; and there is human feeling and dignity in the grain of this performance. Perhaps a little more polish would have done no harm; but at least glossiness is avoided. The first movement is plain and unvarnished, a tale all the clearer for having its exposition repeated. The scherzo themes too are diminished in their intensity, and again this may be a fair comment on the music. For one commentator, “demoniac frenzy” is a relevant phrase; Dr Carner finds febrile restlessness; but Robert Schauffler hears only the laughter that befits a scherzo, together with a certain folk-quality in the second trio. Dr Klemperer favours the modest (or violet) end of the spectrum. His scherzo is restrained in tempo and dynamics, suggesting innocuous alarums and innocent excursions (on one of which by the way violas are plucked without licence, bar 240ff). Similarly in the Adagio the soarings and trillings sound less highflown than ususal, while the victorious finale is decidedly Pyrrhic.
The analogously-interpreted overture op 81 is well-worth hearing for its interesting kinship with op 61. The two works are nearly contemporary and share not only tonality but thematic material and treatment. This may suggest a new interpretation of the symphony. Meanwhile on this record we hear Schumann anew rather than a new Schumann; less revelation than revaluation.
The Musical Times, Sept. 1969 (p. 949) © the estate of eric sams