Sir John Eliot Gardiner represents a new breed of conductors, like Norrington, Jacobs and others who began their careers in Baroque repertoire with period instrument orchestras and then through the back door, came to the classics and Romantics and modern symphony orchestras. Gardiner with the LSO and modern instruments interestingly now turns to the very Romantic music of Robert Schumann.
Schumann’s symphonies have been much maligned in the past by critics saying that he couldn’t orchestrate, but actually this was caused, in Gardiner’s words, by “the late 19th century, opulent concept of Schumann” with muddied textures resulting from the over-Romantic approach of conductors of the time. Gardiner intends to rectify this by bringing “freshness, vivaciousness and clarity” and clean and transparent textures, using his previous experiences with period orchestras.
The Fourth is a particular favourite of mine and also it seems a favourite of conductors. It’s compact, optimistic, forward-looking and full of surprises. Note how Schumann links the movements together with no stops between them, the “trombone sigh” in the first movement development or the mysterious transition between the end of the third and beginning of the fourth movement. I remember Solti practically dancing the lovely melody in the last movement.
The Second is a turbulent affair, a work of genius; the first movement especially, a tremendous tour de force of a single strong rhythmic theme relentlessly driven with neverending variants towards a strong conclusion on the brass. Gardiner opts for fast speeds throughout (except for the heavenly Adagio espressivo) that can be very exciting, but can be detrimental to the beauty of the details. Bernstein’s magisterial reading with the VPO is still my benchmark.